How ubiquitous are emails and Blackberrys? When US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River last week, a passenger, Matt Kane, responded to an email inquiry from Sheik Ali, waiting for him in Charlotte, with the now famous line, "I landed in the Hudson."
Valerie Collins, another passenger, used her cell phone in the plane to say to her family, "My plane is crashing." According to the Daily Mail, in an interview after the crash ,Collins said, "OK, I'm not going to see my husband and children again. And I just want them to know at this point, they were the number one thought in my mind."
Kane was safe and on dry land when he sent his messages, and Collins lived to be interviewed, thanks to a cool and courageous pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, whose name will go into the history books for landing a passenger jet safely on a river next to one of the most populated cities in the world.
I have seen no other reports of messaging to friends and family, but I am willing to bet that, as soon as they were able, many of the 155 on board the aircraft opened their telephones and laptops to share the exciting and good news by email.
And, what did they say? "I landed on the Hudson." Perhaps after they were rescued others said, "Don't worry; I am safe." Or, "I'll tell you all about it as soon as I see you." Maybe they said, "You're never going to believe what just happened to me." In any case they each had an incredible story to tell.
But they didn't tell the whole story with email. Email is designed for the kind of message Matt Kane and Valerie Collins sent: brief, factual, unemotional. These are among the primary strengths of email, making it the easiest and fastest way to communicate. And, because of those strengths, we send trillions of emails each year. But, email's ease and convenience bring a host of potential problems, some that can compromise people and businesses.
Email must be handled with care. Just ask Neal Patterson, CEO of the Cerner Corporation in 2001 who sent an email message to 400 company managers criticizing them for their lack of good management. The email was leaked and posted on Yahoo and resulted in big losses for the company, as well as public (and continuing) humiliation for Patterson. The valuation of the company, according to the NY Times, dropped 22% in three days, trading in Cerner's stock skyrocketed, and the stock price fell from $44 per share to near $30 per share.
If you have to send an email (and notice I said, "If you have to...."), keep it short and factual. Email lacks context clues, emotion, and rapport. If emotion will be part of your message, meet face-to-face with the intended audience. If you are late because the airplane you are travelling in has just landed in the Hudson River, send a quick email!