An Open Letter About Why It’s Time to Ditch Open Letters

The idea of “Open Letters” has become all the rage these days. You can find “Open Letters” in newspapers, magazines, or online addressed to politicians, religious leaders, CEO’s, and even to local high school football coaches. I don’t know who wrote the first open letter – and he or she may have had a legitimate issue and wanted to bring it up in a public space. But today, they’re so ubiquitous that in my opinion they’ve lost all their credibility.

Essentially here’s what you’re saying when you write an “Open Letter:”

1) You’re lazy. Think about it. If you worked at it, you could at least get close to the person you’re writing to and discuss the issue privately, but instead, you decide to take the easy way out and try to embarrass them publicly.

2) You have no real access to this person. This makes you look small because if you had any real authority or clout, you could actually get your complaint to the right person (or someone close).

3) It’s not really about the person you’re writing to, it’s about you. After all, an actual personal meeting wouldn’t allow you to showcase your moral outrage to thousands of readers.

4) Which reveals the reality of the vast majority of open letters: they’re simply an attempt to embarrass someone. But embarrassing someone makes you look petty and isn’t going to make them change.

I’ve worked for numerous business and religious leaders who have been on the receiving end of open letters. Guess what? Nobody cares. They know that an open letter is simply grandstanding from someone who doesn’t have enough clout, connections, or gumption to actually reach out.

Yes – you could say that Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” nailed to the Wittenberg Door was an open letter, just like his namesake Martin Luther King 500 years later wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But as Charlotte Alter wrote in Time Magazine: “In the age of social media… every Facebook post is essentially an open letter. Anything that you post on a friend’s wall is addressed to your friend, but really it’s meant for everyone else who might read it. Anytime you mention someone in a tweet, you’re not just talking to that person, you’re talking to all of your followers.”

The bottom line? At the most, outside of social media posts, open letters may satisfy your need for venting to the public, but they do very little toward making an actual difference.

This is the age of communication. Surely we can do better than writing “Open Letters.”

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jay Shennum

    Back in the days of snail mail it was always more effective to send a letter. I’m reminded of a time in the early 90’s the Wall Street Journal printed an article about Pastor, Tommy Barnett of North Phoenix Assembly of God. They criticized the church for a Christmas pageant.

    I sent letters, via FedEx, to the author, editor, and publisher.

    I received a response via US Post from the author, a screw you, and a second from the Publisher, an apology.

    I submit that personal letters are still the most effective but Companies also respond to Tweets.

  • Andrew Bernard Kanonik

    Absolutely true what you are saying here Phil, I find this very helpful in times of social media overload.

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  • Nathan Jones

    I may use social media in all our ministry’s digital marketing, but watching the cultural scene, the world would be a lot more peaceful place without it. The virtually open and unfiltered nature of social media may even be what’s helping tear our nation apart. Any Cooke Pictures studies to that effect?