Gini Dietrich

When to Use (and Not Use) Email

By: Gini Dietrich | March 8, 2016 | 

When to Use EmailBy Gini Dietrich

A few years ago, I was in San Diego visiting our (at the time) largest client.

I had worked extraordinarily hard to win this client. It was the first time we’d not only been named agency of record, but we had won the business away from a large, global PR firm.

It was quite a coup for us and I handled the client service myself.

At dinner that evening, the client told me he was unhappy with certain parts of our work. He loved the work *I* was doing, but not that of some of my team.

Frustrated, I asked some questions, got some feedback, and stored it away until I got back to my hotel that evening.

It was 1 a.m. in Chicago when I took the time to write an email about the areas where the client was unhappy and provided the feedback to my team.

And then I hit send and went to bed.

I finished my meetings, flew home, and went into the office. I was on the warpath and some heads were going to roll. I was not going to lose this business because of some amateur mistakes—my team knew better.

I Felt Better, But…

I was at my desk, checking my voicemail messages and waiting for my computer to boot up (I was on a PC at the time) when our managing director came into my office and closed the door.

What happened next was shocking to my 34-year-old self.

She told me I had essentially thrown a bomb into the office with that email and she was left to clean up the pieces. She said the younger members of our team were devastated; that they had been working incredibly hard and I had undone it all with one email.

She said it was in poor taste and horrible leadership to handle the communications that way versus waiting until I got back to have the conversation in person.

I remember exactly what she said next. She said, “I’ll bet you felt better because you got it off your chest.”

What I learned later is one of our younger professionals actually read the email at 1 a.m. and, panicked he was going to lose his job, called a colleague and the rest went downhill..

No one on the team slept that night and it was my fault.

Of course, I didn’t mean to cause that chain reaction, and certainly no one was going to lose their jobs. But I came from a large, global PR firm where communications were handled that way. It never occurred to me that conversations like that should never occur in email.

An Email Bomb is Bad

I’ll admit I was so angry that day, I saw red. How dare she come into my office and berate me that way?

But after I had time to process it all, I realized she was right. And, to this day, the only communication I have via email is for updates or to request things. It’s never for difficult conversations or to make decisions.

Unfortunately, not every leader has had a managing director put them in their place.

I was on the other side of the email just last week. A client threw a bomb into my inbox at 9:30 p.m. and I was up for the next three hours, dealing with it.

It wasn’t so important that it couldn’t wait until the next day, but the chief marketing officer was panicked that if she didn’t work until after midnight to get what he wanted, her day the following day would be miserable.

And, because of the relationship we have with her, I couldn’t just let her deal with it alone. We were in it together.

But it did remind me of that conversation all those years ago in my office that day: A good leader knows how to use the tools at his or her disposal appropriately.

Email is most definitely not a tool to be used for difficult conversations and it most certainly is not a tool to be used after hours in a way that might be disruptive to your team’s family life or ability to sleep so they’re on task the next day.

(Total side note: This is why I love SendLater. It allows me to work after hours, but not send emails until the next day. This way, no one has the perception that I expect them to work after hours and I never risk sending an email bomb.)

When to Use Email

It’s certainly a lot easier to use email when you have to have a difficult conversation. It helps you avoid conflict. But it’s a sign of horrible leadership.

In fact, I wouldn’t even call it horrible leadership. It’s a sign that a manager can’t break into leadership.

There are certainly times you should use email:

  • To send data or metrics that need to be in front of someone before and during a conversation.
  • To provide brief status updates.
  • To direct the receiver to an online source for more information.
  • To thank someone or send general, pleasant information.
  • To provide pre-meeting information or agenda items.
  • To provide complex or intricate direction so it’s easy to refer back to. Though, in many of these cases, I almost prefer video to email because it gives your team the step-by-step directions in a way they can watch you do it.
  • To ensure there’s a record of communication. This might happen when you suspect there is going to be a lawsuit in front of you because of breach of contract. Then all rules are off because you must get everything in writing.

The list is pretty small.

When Not to Use Email

The list of when not to use email, on the other hand, is gigantic.

You should not use email:

  • To give bad or negative news.
  • To change direction of an agreed-upon plan.
  • To stop activity that is the middle of being executed upon.
  • When the receiver deserves an opportunity to give immediate feedback or response
  • To express feelings.
  • To give critical feedback.
  • To deliver a difficult, sensitive, or sticky message, such as turning someone down for a raise or promotion, discussing concerns about attendance, or ending someone’s pet project.
  • To deprive anyone of a conversation.
  • To discuss anything confidential.
  • To complain about someone or something.
  • To discipline a team member.
  • To discuss something controversial.
  • When a conversation is required.
  • To fire someone.

It’s not easy to do. You’re busy. You’re running in a million different directions. Perhaps you won’t be able to have a live conversation for days.

That’s okay. You have the advantage of time on your side and a few days allows you to think through the conversation. By the time you have it, you’ll no longer be angry, which is better for everyone.

Really think about this the next time you want to use email. Ask yourself, “Does this need to be communicated right now and in this way or can it wait?”

I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.

Now the floor is yours. What experience do you have with emails that should have been conversations?

image credit: shutterstock

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Bill Dorman

    Tru dat; my account manager insists I let her read the e-mail first before hitting send. In my mind it’s a neutral tone and I’m just trying to set the facts straight; the reality is, the tone appears sharp at times and has backfired on me more than once. What can I say, I’m a slow learner.

    It’s easy to hide behind e-mail or lose the proper intent w/out the inflection in your voice you get by having an actual conversation. These are good do’s and don’ts indeed…

    • This same thing applies for the way we respond in social media. I got fired up about something last night and, rather than comment, I’ve let it sit overnight. Now I probably won’t post my response.

    • Chief Alien of FRance with a Capital R

      I loved the email to Gov Scott where you misspelled Duck on your birthday party hunting invite. Those silly keys tight next to each other.

    • Corina Manea

      I learned to read my emails two or three times before hitting send, have a break if I am not sure or feel too strongly about something, chill and come back later. Needless to say it saved me many headaches.

  • Tony

    Gini, I love this article! So many people are afraid to give negative feedback in person but it’s detrimental to morale. I’m concerned for younger professionals who are so reliant on written communication.

    • VERY good point about those who are reliant on written communication. I can only hope we coach them the very best way to handle things that should be in-person. It’s not fun…or easy. But it saves a lot of pain and heartache.

  • Agree, agree, agree! Never send email when you’re feeling in ANY way emotional, upset, or angry. And if you’re not sure if you should send an email, DON’T!

    • I can think of one really good reason to send email…and it’s in the case that I just emailed you this morning.

  • Kate Eidam

    Everyone who emails (so pretty much everyone on the planet) should read this post. I’ve certainly been guilty of poorly timed email bombs and using email to communicate a difficult message. 9 times out of 10, “face-to-face” wins the day. If it has to be documented, it’s easier to follow up with an email…then to have the initial convo via email. Thanks for the checklist and kick-in-the-pants reminder!

    • Way easier to have the conversation first and then follow-up in email. So many feelings are saved that way.

  • I have been on the receiving end of one of those ebombs. It is highly unpleasant to say the least. To say I had to drag myself in to work and not cry at my desk for undergoing a massive assault the night before was beyond humiliating.

    Sometimes hard things need to be said, but personal attacks need to stay out of it. In person is better all the time.

    • Gini Dietrich

      It totally stinks to be on the receiving end of this kind of communication. I don’t know why people insist on doing it, except for ignorance. I have to believe most people want to treat their team well.

  • I agree with Ken. I never send email when I’m feeling big emotions. My general rule is always to sleep on it. It’s amazing the perspective you have the next morning.

    • Gini Dietrich

      I think we should have a conversation with B about texting her feelings to you. (And what did you do to deserve that??)

  • Chief Alien of FRance with a Capital R

    OMG I so did the email bomb thing more than once. Like completely epic bombs. They were totally amazing. And I so wish I could take each of them back. Only one at work though! Oh geez can you imagine how Snowden felt when he finally hit send?!!!!!!!!

    So here is a story before email of how hard it was to truly pull this stuff off. I had a roommate screw me and during his last month he was caught stealing stuff from friends (mementos he was moving away….) and we made this giant card with photos and comments all pretty harsh and were going to mail it….until it turned out to big to mail…..saved by the USPS!

    Great tips Mr.Kramer always love your blog! Your post about SnapChat was epic.

    • Gini Dietrich

      So he never received the card??

  • I had a similar experience, Gini. I used to send a note on Sunday nights at 10 pm to people who worked at my agency with a list of things I wanted them to do. I thought I was being organized till they told me that it ruined their Sunday night sleep and why couldn’t I wait till Monday. I had no idea how they felt before they mentioned it. And now, I still write a lot of emails in the evening, but I save most as a draft and send them during work hours the next day. Great post.

    • Gini Dietrich

      SendLater! Get it. Install it. Send emails that way. You’ll love it.

      Remember Randy Hall? At one point, he told me the story of how he used to pack up his office, turn off his light, and then go downstairs to an internal office that didn’t have windows and resume his work there.

      He did that because people would see him still in his office at 6:00 and think he expected them to stay. So he’d walk at out 8 p.m. and everyone was still there. He tried to tell them he didn’t expect them to stay, but that wasn’t the message he was sending.

      So he moved to that strategy and everyone felt comfortable leaving when their work was finished versus waiting for him to finish his.

  • Pat Rhoads

    Another great post, Gini. One thing I’d like to point out is how hard it is to offer up our own epic failings to use as teachable lessons for others. It takes strength to admit our mistakes so publicly and with such transparency. This is one of the reasons I have such great respect for you.

    Now, I’d like to chat more, but someone just royally ticked me off and I’m in the middle of a total email firebomb that I want to get finished right at the end of the day today… 🙂

    • Gini Dietrich

      Thanks, Pat! I don’t sit on my high horse and pretend I’m without faults. I’ve learned all of these lessons through big, dumb mistakes. I hope my mistakes can help some of you prevent them. Though it sounds like someone in your organization needs to read this blog post… 🙂

  • Corina Manea

    This is so good. Thank you for writing this, Gini.

    Speaking of horrible leadership, I had a boss once (also the owner of the company) who, when he disagreed with me or was upset, instead of communicating the issue to me or have a conversation, he just wouldn’t answer my calls or emails.

    Please note it was his company, I was working for him in a key role where, let’s just say I could have done really bad things, if I wanted to.

    Still, knowing that, he chose not to have a conversation to solve whatever the issue was. Moreover, he used the “word of mouth” in the company to communicate stuff to me.

    I remember one Sunday evening (yes, you read correctly) he sent me an email “Corina, please see me tomorrow morning at 9:00 in my office.”

    That was the last drop for me. I left the company (followed shortly by other key people).

    What these “leaders” who avoid a phone call, in-person meeting will gain, in the end, is for the really good people to leave the company, sooner or later. It’s not a probability, just a matter of time.

    Common sense, basic education lack in these people.

    Someone should tell them, it’s not the ’50s, ’80s, not even 2000s. BE HUMAN!

    • Corina, if it makes you feel any better, I had a relationship with a former boss (the owner) exactly like that. He would embarrass both of us in meetings by denying he’d said specific things or dropping bombs in front of staff when he should have met with me privately. I also quit followed by others. Anyway, I always think what goes around comes around.

    • Gini Dietrich

      You know I’m totally tempted now to Slack you to see me at 9:00, right? LOL!

      • Corina Manea


  • Michelle Hals

    I love this post, Gini. One of the mentors taught me about using the right tool for the job. He was talking about conducting research but it applies for broadly. Sure, you can email someone about something, but is that the best way to accomplish your task? Maybe, maybe not.

    • Gini Dietrich

      In more exciting news, are you finished with HOC? I’m on episode nine.

  • Enjoyed the post good information .

    With that said, I almost never use email to communicate bad news ..well.. unless it cannot be done in person or if I want to be a weasel . this is not to say that I don’t write them … I just never send them.

    Very often, the exercise of writing them is more an exercise in clearing up my thinking and my umm emotional exuberance. when its time to send … it seems pretty unnecessary.

  • Oh Gini, don’t you wish the more experienced versions of ourselves could school the 34 year old versions?

    Another “When not to email”:
    At night after a few glasses of wine!

  • Claire

    This post is extremely relevant, Gini! Email is such a convenient form of communication, but you make a good point that it is easy to abuse. PR professionals need to be mindful of how they use email because it can definitely quickly destroy relationships with clients.

  • Great article Gini! A long time ago my colleagues and I instituted an informal rule never to email anything at 4pm or end of the work day. If it was that important to send you should just pick up the phone or leave it until the morning (unless it was something previously agreed upon with the receiver). It’s saved me a lot of grief and probably those I’m communicating to. Also, I love apps that let you send later – MixMax (referral link: is another free tool if you work with Gmail.

    • Thank you for the tip on MixMax!

      I have a friend who runs an agency who has adopted this very thing. I really love it. It’s very respectful.