The Bulletin Board Rule

If you wouldn’t shout something from a bulletin board, then you would be wise to keep it out of your electronic communications.

What happens to seemingly intelligent people when it comes to writing e-mails or engaging in any kind of electronic communications? They say and do things they would tell their employees, colleagues, friends, and loved ones never to do. And they get caught. And the consequences can be (and have been) devastating.

Here are just a few of the more egregious examples:

Anthony Weiner: New York politician. Sexting. Need I say more?

General David Petraeus: He got caught exchanging e-mails with his lover. The affair and the e-mails were bad enough, but they also tried to beat the e-mail system by ensuring he and she never actually sent an e-mail. Instead they created a bogus e-mail account in which they penned a missive and stored it as a draft. Then the partner would access the e-mail account and be able to read the draft without it ever actually having been sent. Clever. But “If Something Can Go Wrong It Will” Murphy got them, and Petraeus lost his job as CIA director and saw his reputation tarnished.

Nancy Sebring: She was a Des Moines, IA, school system superintendent until a Freedom of Information request opened her e-mail to the scrutiny of the press. Among the e-mails on her work computer were personal e-mails of a spicy nature she sent to her boyfriend. Not only did she lose her job, she lost the opportunity to become the superintendent of the Omaha, NE, school system.

James Andrews: While in Memphis for a meeting with a large corporate client, the VP for Ketchum PR tweeted: “True confession, but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say, ‘I would die if I had to live here!’” Try explaining that to your client. Embarrassing, to say the least.

Selfies, e-mails, tweets—they’re all forms of electronic communication that share one immutable fact: They are not private means of communicating. They are public forms of communication. As such, they can and—at the worst possible time, as these individuals can attest— will be seen by lots of people with unexpected and, in some cases, disastrous outcomes.

What, you may ask, is the way to avoid the trouble these people and countless others have found themselves in? Follow The Bulletin Board Rule:

If you can’t put it on a bulletin board for anyone to read, don’t e-mail it, text it, IM it, leave it on a voicemail, tweet it, or blog it.

It sounds obvious, so why don’t people follow a rule they know makes sense? Either they simply aren’t thinking or they deceive themselves into believing they won’t get caught. Either way, inevitably the cat gets out of the bag. They lose a job, tarnish a reputation, cause inestimable pain—all because they either didn’t think or thought themselves immune to the consequences.

When you communicate electronically, follow The Bulletin Board Rule. You’ll never regret it.

Peter Post is a director of The Emily Post Institute (, greatgrandson of Emily Post, and co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business.”

If you have business etiquette questions you’d like Peter Post to answer either in an upcoming issue of Training magazine or in an online article, please e-mail them to Training magazine Editor-in-Chief Lorri Freifeld at