Digital Madness: The Week of Behaving Badly

Say you’ve got a sweet little military flame, on the side. Or maybe a weird obsession with a “social ambassador” in Florida.

Don’t send them emails.
Especially if you’re the Director of the CIA. Or the lead man in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Of all the strange, sad news of the week, the breakdown in morals and integrity, the flat out firestorm that has engulfed U.S. leadership, the realization that smart men like General David Petraeus didn’t know — or ignored — the basic facts about email communication is stunning. You’d think that the CIA boss would be mindful that email is trackable, that sharing unsent messages in a draft folder, known as “dead drops,” is a hopped-up teenage move.

Apparently not. According to an article written by Slate’s Ryan Gallagher, Associated Press reports and other sources, Petraeus and his alleged mistress Paula Broadwell used pseudonyms but didn’t think about or use encryption and other types of cloaking software. The bottomline is that you have to work pretty hard to conceal your email activity. Messages from Gmail, Yahoo and the rest have metadata, such as ip addresses and header content, which is enough to learn basic information about location and names. From there, things generally get easier:

1. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires a subpoena approved by a federal prosecutor in order to gain access to and content stored in the cloud that’s six months old or older. No judge. No problem.

2. Most companies are happy to provide assistance. In 2011, Google complied with around 11,000 of the more than 12,300 user data requests it received in 2011 from the government.

It seems that a better choice would be to avoid communicating over email. Right? Almost unbelievably, this week also showed that they aren’t the only ones who could use a little lesson on the basics of the digital world. If sex makes people crazy enough to do stupid things with email, pizza — the selling of pizza — makes store owners absolutely mad for text message marketing. On Wednesday, Papa John’s was sued for $250 million due to spam texts sent via a blast text message company named OnTime4U, allegedly by the company’s franchise operators. The class-action lawsuit claims that they sent customers 500,000 messages in 2010 — without asking permission. According to statements from court documents, Papa John’s informed its franchisees that sending unwanted texts was “most likely illegal.” Most definitely it is, at least according to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.

Whether it’s the Petraeus saga or the Papa Johns franchise text message case, the week of digital madness serves as a cautionary tale about the world we live in. It’s a digital, mobile world which gives incredible freedom and power to anyone with an Internet connection. We can do everything and anything from a smartphone, a tablet or a PC. But that’s a double-edged sword — social media, blogs, email and text messages amplify and publicize those things that we do, our opinions and our behavior. As Petraeus would say, “act like someone is watching you — because someone always is.” In the digital age, that’s more true than we may want to admit. Remember these basic tips:


1. Big Brother: assume that your company reads your emails. Because they do, or can, so don’t write something in an email that you wouldn’t say in public or to your Mom.

2. No Substitute: Email is not a substitute for face-to-face contact or a telephone conversation. Keep personal matters or detailed conversations out of the email box; remember that an email can be easily misinterpreted. Often context is lost when you open up Gmail.

3. Keep Calm, Be Professional: This is the golden rule of email, and one everyone breaks. Don’t send an email in anger or haste. Think twice before you send it, walk away for 5 minutes, do whatever it takes to make sure you aren’t lighting a person up on the other end.

For marketers, the fast-paced world of digital content requires a purposeful approach to planning and publishing. So whether selling cars or client services, it pays to be mindful of the lessons from this week, if only to ensure that the appropriate basics are in place:

1. Email and Text: Read CAN-SPAM, and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Both cover all commercial messages; CAN-SPAM lists 7 requirements. It all pretty much boils down to this: ask permission, don’t deceive, be transparent and know what’s going on with your business.

2. Social Media: Trust the person who is at the controls on behalf of your company. Everyone makes mistakes, but knowing that a mistake is the exception and not the rule is critical. Be sure you run your social platforms with a calendar, and keep a watchful eye on the discourse that happens on social spaces. Most of all, have a crisis management plan in place so you know what to do if things go sideways.


It takes research, knowledge of laws and adherence to best practices to be fast and good at digital communication. In that way, it’s much like anything worth doing: the game is won when you approach the work diligently, with discipline and proper preparation. And it pays to remember, even with all the freedom gained because of technology — and, actually, because of it — there’s one thing you can’t do.

There are no takebacks.

–Brian Chee

Sources: Associated Press, CNN, Slate, Wired, NBCFCCFTC

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