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Published in The Miami Herald on Monday, 5/10/04

The trials and tribulations of e-mail
High-profile South Floridians share their pointers on how to avoid being buried in an avalanche of electronic mail.




Imagine that you can communicate with just about anyone. In some cases, your message goes unscreened and unfiltered, past secretaries and receptionists -- directly to the Big Cheese. Plus, you can include photos, sound recordings, text documents and other files of all types and size. And one thing more, it's free.

What a wondrous thing!

What a royal pain!

It's e-mail, of course. Most business people use at least one ''address'' for receiving electronic text and graphic messages via the Internet at their home, office and/or mobile computers or PDAs.

But along with the legitimate and substantive correspondence among associates and acquaintances, there are also plenty of electronic jokes, chain letters, urban legends and spam on everything from potency enhancement to pleas for assistance from alleged survivors of deposed African officials.

Then there are scads of other e-mails -- stuff sent in good faith from businesses and individuals that's also unsolicited and usually unwanted.

I, for example, review business books, but I'm flooded with pitches from publicists to do stories on subjects I don't cover, invitations to seminars and presentations all over the globe, and offers to sit in on conference calls, interviews and press junkets that have nothing to do with business books. I was even invited to interview Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, but decided to wait for their business book, first.

Though those in the news business seem to be magnets for spam, I imagine high-profile personalities and public officials also get more than their share of unsolicited solicitations, invitations, commercial offers, business proposals and permutations of the spam themes du jour.

How they handle their e-mails may yield tips on how to avoid being buried by the avalanche of electronic mail that assaults many people at work.

University of Miami President Donna Shalala, for example, says she gets e-mail from people who still think she's the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, a Cabinet position she held during the Clinton administration.

''I also hear from alum and people who want to suggest plays for our sports teams, and offer advice on hiring and firing coaches,'' she said with a laugh.

''But I get plenty of legitimate messages from students, faculty and staff, as well as parents and others,'' said Shalala by phone -- not e-mail.


How does she deal with spam?

''I don't,'' she said. ''It's either filtered or deleted, but I never open it.''

How much time does she spend each day with her e-mail?

''About a half-hour. No more than an hour all told most days,'' she said. ''I have a rule that I only handle a piece of paper once. Same thing with e-mail.''

In addition to her UM e-mail address, she also has a private account ''for family and friends to reach me,'' said Shalala.

Andrew Tobias, author and the Democratic Party treasurer, gives his cellphone number to friends, family and business associates instead of using a private e-mail address.

For the general public, he has a page on his website ( www.andrewtobias.com ) that allows e-mail communication. But how does he read and respond to everything?

'It's overwhelming. All I do is e-mail. Once in a while, I run to the refrigerator. Last week, I went for a quick walk. I read all the mail from my website and will usually do at least a quick 'thanks' when someone has said something nice or helpful,'' he wrote via e-mail.

'I'm not able to answer all the personal finance questions, but some I answer 'on-line' for the rest of the readers to see as well. . . though lately I've been more into politics than mortgage prepayments.''


''I get a fair number of really offensive ones, too,'' Tobias wrote. ''The worst usually come from people who use fake addresses. So I compose this brilliant reply, so sharp in its logic and subtle in its sarcasm that it will surely bring them to their knees begging forgiveness -- and it bounces back as undeliverable.''

''But actually,'' Tobias continued, ''I find that those who use real addresses -- when taken seriously and answered in a respectful way -- turn into different people. Turns out, a lot of these people would never act this way outside of e-mail, and never really expect you to read it, let alone answer, and so go way overboard in their rants.

''I've been guilty of this myself. But when you do respond, their better nature reemerges; they realize there is an actual person involved, and they become completely gracious,'' he said.

Don Slesnick is an attorney, but he's also mayor of Coral Gables. To keep things straight electronically, he keeps one e-mail account at City Hall and another at his law office.

''They're separate, but invariably some city messages come to my business and vice versa, so I wind up forwarding them to where it's appropriate,'' he said.

''I get about 65 e-mails a day as mayor. At least 25 of them are junk; spam and the usual offers. Another 15 or 20 are informational and come from staff and managers. Then maybe another 20 require action, so I respond, try to soothe the people with complaints or concerns about traffic, streets, sewers or other city business, and forward their messages to the appropriate city departments to take care of the problem, or share in the compliment if there is one.''


The mayor admits, ''I'm not a computer guru, but e-mail is a way of life and it's distorted public service in some ways. People expect an instant response. They get it, and it just encourages more. But that's all right. It's what government is supposed to do.

''I feel bad, though, for the people who take the time to write or type a letter, put it in an envelope, pay for the postage and then wait a few days for me to receive it and respond. I have to write them back, and I do, but it doesn't seem fair that I can deal with the ones I get by e-mail first, and a citizen who makes a greater effort by sending a letter has to wait longer!''

Dave Wannstedt, coach of the Miami Dolphins, uses e-mail for business and personal use, but don't expect your e-mail about his play calling or draft choices to go directly to him. Fan e-mail that comes through the Dolphins website is routed to the Dolphins' Internet department first.

'I answer my own e-mail,' Wannstedt said through the team's Media Director Harvey Greene. ''Most business and personal e-mail comes directly to me. Fan e-mails go directly to our Internet department where they either receive a response or are forwarded to my attention.''

Greene fields reporters' requests for interviews by phone and e-mail, and says that many fan e-mails can be helpful and have pointed out errors in stats or other facts in team publications.

Does e-mail save time? It's an open question, but I would say probably not. Like most technological advances intended as labor-saving, it's carved its own chunks out of our days and probably takes as much time as it saves.

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