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To cc or to bcc? That is the question.

I know some fairly intelligent people and when I asked some of them what ‘cc’ actually meant, only one out of twelve knew the answer. It’s something you probably use everyday, when you send an email, but in case you are not aware, it stands for ‘carbon copy’. Meaning, you have sent the same same message to different people.

Back in the day, when you wrote a business letter to someone, you might send a duplicate to someone else; you would then indicate this fact with the notation ‘cc’, so they both knew that you had sent them the same information. It probably has its origins in the legal profession; wills, contracts etc. A letter to one or more people may well have have been sealed, to show it carried some heft and importance.

Bcc means ‘blind carbon copy’ and is used when messages are sent to multiple recipients, concealing the fact there may be additional addressees on the complete list. This term also applied to paper correspondence, but now is usually associated with email. Sometimes the writer needs to make sure multiple recipients do not see the names of other recipients. Essentially, the primary recipients and secondary recipients (cc) can’t see the tertiary recipients (Bcc).

The Bcc is commonly used when addressing a long list of recipients, for example, in mailing lists. People obviously have legal rights concerning the dissemination of their email details.

Rod Bailey, CEO of ExecutiveSurf, sees dual purposes for the use of cc; firstly: “CC is used as a common courtesy. No request may be made, but the cc’d person is kept up to speed and is not required to do anything. The addressee is aware of this and feels looked after. It might be giving a client an update, or cc’ing a senior colleague shows assurance in the quality of one’s work and a willingness to take criticism.”

Secondly, in what he terms ‘escalation’, Bailey says: “This gets a response, when no cc doesn’t. It can be subtle; ‘I’ve asked you once, I’ve asked you twice, now you should act because I’m going public’. Use sparingly.”

Bailey adds that sending cc to your complete address book should only be used in dire circumstances, perhaps asking your next of kin to use it were you to die. Otherwise, use bcc.

Right, that’s the practicalities out of the way. What other ramifications can these conventions have in our personal and business communications?

“Dude, the threesome’s off…that last email cost me my job.”

It was in 2003 that a successful city lawyer, responding to a round robin email from a friend, inviting him to some leaving drinks, sent a sexually explicit email to 30 other people, by hitting the ‘reply to all’ button. 30 people received it, forwarded it to their friends and within hours it had travelled around the world. It basically told everyone that a certain lady was up for a threesome.

It is by no means an isolated incident, particularly among city workers, it seems. Peter Chung, a high-flyer with the Carlyle Group, was forced to resign after an email he sent to colleagues, pledging to,’ make love to every hot chick in Korea’, made its way around the world.

Technical ineptitude with the niceties of emails can lead to unintended consequences that would never have happened in the days of paper correspondence.

It is not just who you send the message to, it could just be the contents. One HR person sent an employee phone list to everyone in the company, but her spreadsheet had hidden (but easily discovered) columns, showing everyone’s pay, bonuses and stock options.

There are plenty of examples of people sending emails, containing sensitive information (credit card details, payrolls, contract details), to entirely the wrong people and it can happen to anyone who doesn’t take sufficient care when sending an email.

The email is now over 40-years old and has taken down some promising careers in its time..

Lucy Gao, working for City Group, in London, invited 39 people to a party and gave them some ridiculous demands. She told her guests to contact her via her PA, only between 8.30pm and 10 pm and to announce to hotel staff; “I am here for Lucy’s birthday at the Rivoli Bar”, and to dress ‘upper class’.

“I will be accepting cards and small gifts between 9pm and 11pm.” Unfortunately, Lucy was not Jennifer Lopez, just a junior employee at a bank and her email was sent to, and ridiculed by, millions of people.

Instant communication can lead to instant gaffes, with a career or reputation being instantly ruined. There are some obvious pitfalls to avoid when emailing.

. Always check the To field before you hit send
. There is an old carpenters’ rule: “Measure twice, cut once”. Think twice before you send and never do it when drunk.
. Use draft folders with caution; it is easy to to send an email in progress by mistake.
. If in doubt about the content of an email, find your inner editor and press cancel, rather than send.
. Do not make jokes or comments on email that you would not make in person. Emails can be a minefield of unintended insults.
. Humour rarely works in electronic communications.

However, the mistakes we make with emails can be hugely magnified by the newer potential communication disaster that is Twitter.

The tweets of the famous now provide half the content our newspapers; occasionally twitter can be a good marketing tool for businesses, but it seems to trip up celebrities on quite a regular basis. The more you tweet, the more likely you are to make a fool of yourself.

Remember Charlie Sheen? While he was the world’s highest-paid sitcom actor, in Two and a Half Men, he tweeted a message to young popster, Justin Bieber, which unfortunately included his mobile phone number. 5 million followers then had the opportunity to call or text him with their varying levels of abuse.

Sarah Palin is obviously a communications’ disaster waiting to happen, and in 2008 she ‘liked’ a tweet, showing a sign outside a church, saying; “The blood of Jesus against Obama, history made 04 November, 2008, a Taliban muslim, illegally elected president USA: Hussain.” D’oh.

Nigel Phillips

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