How to manage email

Email has increasingly become the workhorse technology of PR. It makes a good servant but a poor master. Once you start to get above a certain level, which for me is about 200-250, productivity suffers. Most business books advise you to restrict email usage to two or three times per day. For PR consultants that’s not practical. Speed of response to reporters and clients mean the delay of several hours between email checks is unacceptable. In fact, most PR people I know can barely last an hour.

Under these circumstances, it’s easy to get email urgency addiction and spend the entire day responding to nothing but email. Urgency does not dictate importance, but most of us can’t delineate when triaging our email inboxes. Everything gets equal weight.

There are five things you should do with each email – Delete (preferable), Delegate (if poss), Deal with (if it’s a 60 second task), Schedule (if it’s going to take longer) or Store (if it’s just fyi). The main thing to resist is reading all your email and then circling back to the first one again to action it. Inevitably this leads to a sense of lack of control as more email floods in. Plus double-handling each email burns cycles.

You should also try to receive as little email as possible. You need to be proactive to achieve this. It’s common in PR to have email aliases for each client which go to the entire team. Normally, there is correspondence back and forth on these channels which are only intend for a few recipients. Either get off this group or set up rules which automatically file them for consumption later. Most of it will be just for info.

Religiously unsubscribe from newsletters which are irrelevant and use spamblockers and white lists to reduce noise. As a PR person, it’s your job to be easy to contact. This means you end up on all kinds of lists. Get back off them if you can. CAN-SPAM has made this much easier for legitimate companies in the US.

I’ve experimented with several methods of filing email – right down to by client and by activity eg Client/Media or Client/Analyst relations. This looks great but does take time. I estimate 95% of email over a week old, you’ll never look at again. Search technology (Google Desktop or Spotlight for Mac) has improved to the extent that you can now probably find an old mail if you know some basic details. I now let email pile up (I’m a Piler not a Filer). The advantage of this is that it requires no time and provides a chronological method to find old emails.

The disadvantage is that your inbox can become swiftly overloaded. Much over 10,000 and quite apart from the daunting nature, technically it starts to slow down. If you get 300 mails a day, it only takes a month to get to this stage. My new technique is to dump all the emails in my inbox into an archive folder at the end of every day. I note down all the actions, and just move them across to a file imaginatively called Old Inbox (now on Old Inbox 14!). Then each day you come in to a clear inbox and can immediately see what needs dealing with. It’s easy to find recent mails since they’re all in one place, and minimal time is wasted filing or sorting.

This system may be basic but it does work (at least for me). Do let me know if you have better ideas. Just drop me an email…or better still give be a call.

UPDATE – Lars Schou has emailed to point out an excellent series of posts on 43 Folders called Inbox Zero, which I highly recommend for the email afflicted.

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