Broad Distribution Emails – Don’t Give Away the Crown Jewels

j0309265Many of us receive regular emails from various recruiters, as well as groups and associations that we belong to, with the latest opportunity, offer or scuttlebutt from the gang.

Thank goodness that email is largely paperless; I often worry that my ancient Celt ancestors were right about worshiping trees, and I’m going to be held accountable to the forest for all the paper I produced as a project manager.

Nightmares aside, one needs to be cautious when sending these mass mailings – even if you do have the “permission” of the individuals involved. Poor choices in how to execute that mailing could expose both your organization and yourself to some serious headaches.

It’s generally “best practice” if, when sending a broadly based email to a larger group, that you conceal the individual members on the list. While it might be okay to send an email to your project team or other individuals within your business – that’s often not the case with recruiters, professional associations, the kid’s soccer team, etc – because those individuals are not part of the same organization, and some may have unique privacy concerns or issues.

For instance, as a recruiter, your mailing list is technically going out to individuals who are potentially “competitors” for the same position. Likewise, anyone forwarding your message to another group may just give away all stable of standby contractors to a competitor who also will contact them for opportunities.

A club or association may be a big family at the lodge, but it doesn’t mean they want to hear about the latest multi-level marketing scheme from a member who cut and paste the addresses from your message about club dues and events into his about how to get rich quick.

Ideally you would use a distribution list to send your mass mailing – but not all “lists” are the same.


The three most common lists are:

  • Those maintained within your email server
  • Those maintained via a list-service/association-website
  • Lists maintained within your email client


The email server based lists literally reside as another addressee (but a group one) within your system. Sending a message to the group usually only reveals the name of the group within the server – but not necessarily the members (although some systems do).

It’s important to test what your system does with distribution lists both INTERNALLY and EXTERNALLY. While some show the addressees internally, they usually do not externally – however a REPLY to that message may not just go back to you – but to EVERYONE. That may not be good – unless your group is disciplined and only uses replies to discuss the topic at hand.

Now, what happens if someone uses the same address for a new topic? Does it also go to the group? Yet another thing for you to test – and determine if the behavior is right for you and your group.


At one time “ListServ” or List-Servers were the be all and end all of community of interest mailing lists – where an administrator could send a message to the server and it would in turn take care of distribution to its “subscribers”.

Some still exist today – but with the advent of online groups and associations like Twitter, Yahoo Groups, Facebook pages/groups and LinkedIn Groups – people can now select (and perhaps more importantly – deselect) which groups they wish to hear from and what avenue that update arrives (email, RSS feed, text-to-cell phone, etc).

You still need to be cautious when setting up such a service and think through how you want it configured. For instance – do you want the group public or private? Can anyone join, or do they need approval? Can they easily unsubscribe? Can the list members see each other and their details, or does the service provide some degree of privacy?


This is the way that most of us create our lists – using our mail client software on our computer – like Outlook.

Unfortunately while we may have a simple name for the group on our end (ie- “Club Members” or “Project Managers”) that will relay our message to everyone on the list – more often than not the individual addresses of that group are incorporated into the email received by all.

So your distribution list becomes public – and as we said – this could be bad for business, group dynamics and even a potential privacy violation that could land your group in trouble.

There is a workaround however.


Often, ignoring the TO field in your email and utilizing the BCC (blind-carbon-copy) field instead will generate a message that does not show the addressees (except perhaps just the recipient’s address) and perhaps your own in both the FROM and TO fields.

Not all email clients work this way however… sometimes they show all BCC addressees – assuming they trust each other, while not sharing that same information with the TO addressees… so as with before – test it!


Careful planning and testing before sending out a mass mailing can save you the embarrassment (and potential privacy litigation) associated with giving away the details of your group, while also ensuring you don’t accidentally enable a spammer or competitor with your hard earned list.

Author: Stephen Holton, PMP, CISSP, SSGB, ITIL, CD

After completing over twelve years service in the Canadian Armed Forces, Stephen moved to private industry where he was employed as a Director of Information Technology, Director of Operations and CIO for a number of private sector companies before finally electing to become an independent consultant in 2000. Since then he’s served as a management consultant, project/program manager and business analyst/solution architect in a number of industries and organizations - including a big-5 consulting firm. These industries and organizations have included the airline, railway, telecommunications and banking industries, the Canadian and US Governments, as well as mandates in Brazil and Bermuda. Presently Steve lives in Ottawa, Canada.

3 thoughts on “Broad Distribution Emails – Don’t Give Away the Crown Jewels

Leave a Reply