Reputation Management
Back To Trending

Responding to Angry Emails: One Doctor’s Rx

Is email dead? Not according to Statista, which calculates the global email user base at four billion people in 2020 and projects it to grow to 4.6 billion users by 2025. Even in an era of omnipresent social media, email remains a strong go-to option for communications.

Public figures, in particular, receive an extreme volume of email and must have effective strategies for responding, especially if the email is critical. Our advice for responding to angry emails: Stay calm and consistent and keep the lines of communication open.

Take it from Dr. Anthony Fauci — physician, immunologist and chief medical advisor to seven U.S. presidents and counting. Over the decades, he has received the full range of emails, from sociable to scalding. He’s likely seen it all since he became the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984, Dr. Fauci predates the everyday use of email. In 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a global health crisis, however, his email inbox began to overflow.

NPR reported that Dr. Fauci received 1,000 emails a day in the early months of the pandemic. By March, he told a friend he was receiving more than 2,000 emails a day. Yet he still made a point of replying. As he told the Washington Post, “I have a reputation that I respond to people when they ask for help, even if it takes a long time. And it’s very time-consuming, but I do.”

The NPR story goes into more depth, and it’s noteworthy that Dr. Fauci received very specific questions and in many cases replied in equal detail. In other cases — when angry emails provided advice on how he should do his job — he simply thanked the sender for the note. The point is he and his staff took the time to respond, further reinforcing the public perception that he was accessible, open and responsive to inquiries.

On Simmering and Civility

Dr. Fauci’s polite willingness to engage is not unprecedented. In some ways, it reflects Emily Post’s advice on etiquette which dates back to pen, ink and paper days. Today, etiquette tips for written communications are just as relevant. “Let it simmer,” the etiquette gurus advise, noting that you can’t take back an email after you send it. Put an email in your drafts folder so you can think about your reply before you send it.

You might not always have the luxury of time for a draft, but you can build a list of common questions or issues with approved replies. That’s the equivalent of “simmering” in the sense that a reply already exists, it’s been vetted and you know where to go to if things heat up.

The Better Business Bureau offers this advice for “The Power of Civility.”

If you really need to get something off your chest, write it down. Write that email that says everything you really want to say to that other person. Then delete it. And write another email – the one that you’re actually going to send.

Email is here to stay and can turn from a trickle to a flood quickly. Some incoming email will be positive. Others, well, not so much. Thankfully, few of us get 2,000 emails a day, but even if we do and some are heated or angry emails, we can follow Dr. Fauci’s example as a communicator and be courteous, low-key and empathetic. Respond. Stay positive. And always write your email or reply knowing it could reappear in the local or national news.

Published on: July 12, 2021