How To Spin A Snafu Into An Opportunity, or, An Innocent 23-Million-Email Mistake

When I turned on my computer this morning, at the ripe hour of 7 a.m., I could not access any of the emails I needed to view. My inbox was flooded with 1-2 emails. Every. Single. Second.

I thought it would end. I hoped it would. I looked to the heavens and asked for patience to get through the chaos. There was no reprieve. And I was still on my first cup of coffee.

33,000 people on the email list totaling 23 million emails and lasting a duration of nearly 7 hours

I literally couldn’t clear them out fast enough. I tried setting up a rule to divert the emails to a separate folder, but the onslaught proved too tumultuous – in the midst of trying to free myself from the crushing weight of reply-all nothingness, Outlook panicked. It had a heart attack. Or an aneurysm. Or both. Medical anomalies aside, there were so many emails that my Outlook froze.

After my email program froze, the rest of my computer decided to follow suit. By 7:15 a.m., it had had enough and shut completely down.

I contemplated doing the same.

A Simple Click of The Button

All in all, the ordeal ended up lasting seven hours. SEVEN HOURS.

A gaffe of insane proportions at a large multinational corporation? GASP! It turns out a faux pas had been unintentionally committed. It was initially a thread between a guy named Vince (I wasn’t going to use his name, but it’s already all over the internet) and his team, whoever they may be. But on the last email, Vince, bless his soul, somehow added a very large email distribution list.

Let’s be honest: Most of us have hit Reply All when the simple Reply was the desired outcome. In my personal experiences, there were a matter of 10 or fewer people in the thread, and I felt like I couldn’t look those people in the eyes, terrified they’d think less of me because of my overly caffeinated chubby fingers clicking an eighth of an inch too far to the right.

The crappy part of  part about the whole ordeal? I didn’t know the originator of the email (Vince, who will likely be haunted by this snafu for the remainder of his days), nor was I in any way connected with the project.

But Vince and his team weren’t the issue. It was the 33,000 other people on the email distribution list who, instead of requesting to be removed from the email thread individually, REPLIED ALL.

On and on, thousands of people replied to the entire thread asking to be removed from the list. Every now and then, somebody would chime in and say, “Stop replying all! There was an obvious mistake made, and this is flooding everybody’s inboxes!”

But still, the requests for removal continued. On and on and on. The song that never ends, as it were.

There was another hashtag I saw floating around:  

A Bit Of Context

This event happened at Thomson Reuters, a large corporation, where I’m currently employed. It’s a good company, with good people. In fact, I was at the corporate headquarters just last week for an annual summit. This is the story of #ReutersReplyAllGate. Merely hours old, it has

So, What’s the Takeaway?

Complacency. Or comfort. Both words scare the living hell out of me. I fought wildland fires to put myself through school, and complacency was always the dirtiest word. You go to 10 or 20 fires a season, and you know the geography pretty well, so it’s easy to make assumptions. Assumptions are dangerous.

Comfort is just as bad. Being comfortable signifies to me that you’re not willing to push forward, to learn more, to take on more. If we’re not evolving, then what’s the point?

Fire is relatively simple. The environment around a fire is what becomes complex, as we see each year in California, Oregon, Idaho and Arizona (among others). As powerful and devastating as fire can be, it needs just three things to thrive: heat, oxygen, and fuel. Eliminate one, and you eliminate the flame.

There are times when you want the flame to grow (think: roasted marshmallows over a camp fire) and times when you want the fire to extinguish (think: pretty much all other fires).

That’s what stuck out at me today: The thousands of respondents thought they were helping extinguish the flame. They were instead fanning it. The fire grew and set off an alarm. We all tried to quiet it by yelling at it.

Yelling at fire does not work.

Whether in a corporate setting, or a small mom-and-pop shop, we become accustomed to routine. We know most of the people emailing us, and largely, we know why they’re emailing us. It’s not a stretch then to assume that if others are included on a message, they might likely need to be included in the reply.

So, how do you prevent this from happening again? The way I see it, as with most things that get blown out of proportion, the answer is relatively simple:

  • Think before you speak (verbal or written),
  • If you have an issue, go straight to the source, not the source and 33,000 other innocent bystanders, and


NOTE: While I work at this company, these thoughts are mine alone and do not represent or reflect the company’s opinions or beliefs.




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