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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak and a security conference tries to play it down

If two attendees of your security conference were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, how would you let everyone know? Perhaps not quite in the way the RSA conference did.

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Would she have read the email?

As the novel COVID-19 coronavirus spreads, everything's being canceled. Many people are working from home. Many companies are telling employees to stay there.

These days, you can't even find a conference to go to.

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Perhaps one of the last to take place was the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco. This wafted its way through at the end of February.

Today, however, it emerged that two attendees have been diagnosed with the virus. Perhaps I should be concerned as, though I didn't attend the conference, I did meet with several attendees.

Yet what concerns me this morning is how the conference organizers chose to communicate the unfortunate news to attendees.

Communication isn't always the most robust part of the tech world's being. All those touchy-feely human bits are so silly and irrational. They're so very hard to code and decode.

Also: What happens when coronavirus travel bans hit the US?

Still, an attendee has passed me the email organizers sent to inform everyone of the bad news. 

Please now imagine the subject line. Should it be: "Coronavirus alert"? Or, perhaps the more factual: "Two RSA attendees diagnosed with coronavirus"? Or how about: "Urgent. Please read."?

Well, the RSA organizers chose: "RSA Conference Update."

If ever there was a subject line perfectly designed to be instantly demoted to your email trash bin, this might be it.

If you've been to a conference you move right on, fully aware that any update is likely to involve the conference organizers boasting about how successful the event was.

How many attendees would have eagerly opened this email? I can, of course, see that the organizers were reluctant to be overly alarmist. Yet that subject line surely deserved a little more thought.

The text, of course, tried to say all the right things, including: "Out of an abundance of caution, we want to share this information with you so you can take necessary steps to monitor your own situation."

I fear, though, that truly abundant caution might have embraced the mention of coronavirus in the subject line.

Perhaps it's just me. A long time in the communication business can curdle the mind. Yet when it comes to imparting troubling news, sometimes it's best to be open and clear. I worry that this email sought not to be.

By the by, the theme of this year's conference was "The Human Element."