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March 11, 2005
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Public Relations: "The management function that identifies, establishes, and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and the various publics on whom its success or failure depends." Cutlip, Center, and Broom

March 11, 2005
Maximize PR Impact with Netiquette Mastery
E-communication - much harder than you think?

net·i·quette: blend of net and etiquette; etiquette governing communication on the Internet Merriam Webster

How many of you were raised with computers, email communication, and voice mail? Did you learn to type on a typewriter in school, or did you learn keyboarding skills on a computer? When you were not at home, did you have an answer machine answer your calls, or an electronic voice mail system?

For many of us, we are in a very new era of communications. And as with anything new - there are new rules and principles that we need to understand and apply for successful communications to take place. Just as our society has rules of conduct governing interactions in the face-to-face (f2f) environment, the virtual community also has rules of conduct for electronic interactions.

All media have both limitations and advantages. One of the most common concerns people voice about using an email medium is the challenge of being limited to the written word. On the other hand, this medium also allows writers time to think before committing themselves to a statement that might be perceived as incorrect or insensitive.

When we speak, people pay more attention to our tone of voice than to our word choices--our tone, coupled with hand gestures and facial expressions, give the listener big clues as to what our meaning might be. When we are communicate online, we enlist our words to convey all of the meaning--we do not have the benefit of our smile or other non-verbal communication tools.

No doubt, most of you have read helpful tip sheets on netiquette. And, for the most part you probably just breezed through the tips because most of them are just plain common sense.

In addition to my PR work, I also teach public relations and marketing at the University level. Several months ago, I received a scathing email from a student. He was angry about something, and in his note - all in CAPS - he took me to task. His choice of words, using CAPS, and adding insult to injury, lack of spell check, caused me to fume.

Fortunately, I am well schooled on proper netiquette and did not shoot him back my own version of "mean mail!" I stayed calm, took a few breaths, and tried hard to understand why he was upset. My email response to him was kind and acknowledged his concerns. My final paragraph explained my concern about the content and the format of the email I received. I explained that when we write in CAPS, we are screaming at the other person, and I knew that he would never scream at a professor - ever - as that would certainly be disrespectful. I wrote that he must not be aware of netiquette, because I know that he would not do this on purpose. And, yes, I was pretty angry (months later, I can still remember the feeling).

His note back was refreshing. Of course he apologized, and did write that he was not aware of the "CAPS" rule. For the next four weeks, all of his emails contained an apology. He learned a quick lesson, the easy way (I was after all understanding - I knew he would never do something like this on purpose, right?)!

So, what is the lesson for us here as we try to apply netiquette to our work environment? Do we ever receive a second chance? Just like they say, you only have one chance to make the right first impression, the same holds true for your written words - your email communications.

Tone and Online Communication

In face-to-face communication, meaning is conveyed not only through words but also through tone of voice and body language (facial expressions, hand gestures, etc.). As a result, listeners pay more attention to our tone and body language than to our word choices in order to derive additional clues to our meaning.

Challenges of Online Communication

One of the challenges of communicating online is that we must depend entirely on words to convey meaning. For example, we don't have the opportunity to reinforce our intention to be positive and encouraging with a smile or a nod. Without the accompanying tone or body language, people can misconstrue the meaning of the message. Consequently, written communicators need to carefully choose their words to avoid any negativity or misunderstanding. A careless joke can flop, or an offhand comment can come back to haunt us.

Visual Enhancements in Written Communication

Written communication doesn't allow for visual cues (such as raised eyebrows to denote surprise) or verbal cues (such as voice inflections to denote emphasis). However, this medium does allow for a unique dynamic: the ability to convey tone through writing. The words we choose, the format in which we present them, and visual enhancements - such as italics, color, font size, and emoticons J - all convey the tone of messages.

The Importance of Tone in Written Communication:

Tone in writing provides the reader with an indication of how the writer feels about the subject matter, as well as about the audience. In online communication, it's necessary for our tone to be professional and direct, yet natural and unforced. We want others to know that we have given thoughtful consideration to the subject matter. We also want the tone to come across as open and welcoming of further comments and responses from our colleagues. The use of appropriate tone is not a skill to be mastered, but a skill that must continually honed.

Below are some tips to consider when writing messages for the online environment:

Keep the intended audience in mind. Personalize your message for a particular audience. Use appropriate greetings in your messages, reference specific comments included in the email to you. Use a natural, conversational style of writing. Don't force your writing to be overly formal and rigid.

Read your writing aloud to determine how your words might come across to the reader. Use a clear, direct approach to writing. Avoid technical or stuffy language, and write with simpler, more concise sentences.

Other recommendations include:

Staying on topic. Stick to one subject in an email to avoid diluting your message or confusing your audience.

Using appropriate subject lines. As a conversation evolves, the subject may change and it is helpful if the subject line is changed to reflect the topic addressed in the message.

Be attentive to editing your replies. If you're responding to a message, quote the relevant and specific passage or summarize it for those who may have missed it. Do not make people guess what you are talking about, especially if you are responding to a particular message.

Maintaining professional and respectful dialogue at all times. Just as you shouldn't drive when you are angry, you should not send email responses when you are mad at someone. Go ahead and type a response, but do not send it - just place it in your Draft folder and look at it again the next day. Chances are that when you come back later to read your response, you will be glad that you did not send it.

Avoiding ''I agree'' and ''me too!'' messages. It is very frustrating to find lots of messages with very little substance. Remember that email communication can be "labor-intensive" and that it takes time to read numerous messages.

Avoiding the use of all caps. (IT'S LIKE SHOUTING!) You can do it occasionally for strong emphasis, but only for individual words. Recognizing that we are "talking" with one another, not "writing to" one another. Email messages are conversational and are quite often informal (and prone to occasional grammatical, spelling and typographical errors). However, despite that informality, we should still make the effort to transmit messages that are readable and understandable.

Bottom Line: Use your words wisely to forward your organization's PR agenda!


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