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Richard Laermer used to clear his throat when he wanted to get his employees' attention during meetings with customers. But nonverbal gestures took verbal form when he got his hands on a RIM pager, one of several handheld devices that are adding an undercurrent of stealth strategizing to business meetings.

Laermer, CEO of New York City­based RLM Public Relations, now can send intra-meeting E-mail messages to colleagues across the conference table when, to all outward appearances, he's merely checking his to-do list. Recently, Laermer shot a message to one of his account executives because the account exec was directing all his comments to the customer's fetching female marketing director rather than to its dour CEO. "Pay attention to him," Laermer typed. Seconds later, the account exec redirected his gaze.

Customers of Laermer's 34-person Internet PR company are growing more accustomed to the device, he says. At one meeting, however, a customer who was frustrated by the incessant beeping and typing snatched the pager from Laermer's hands. Moments later, the customer began choking on a cracker and reached for Laermer's Diet Coke. Laermer held the drink hostage until he got his pager back.

Covert E-missives also ricochet around meetings at eTour.com, an Atlanta-based company that guides its subscribers in their Web surfing. A recent volley of messages fired off from BlackBerry handhelds helped eTour executives to surreptitiously revamp their negotiation strategy during a deadlocked sales presentation and seal a deal with a new client -- a client potentially worth millions to the company, according to Mark F. Sakalosky, director of E-commerce development. "Without the BlackBerries, the negotiation would have ended," he says. Sakalosky particularly likes using his BlackBerry during client conference calls that involve eTour officers in far-flung locations.

Such clandestine communication is certainly tactical, but is it polite? "No. It's rude," says Peter Post, great-grandson of Emily Post and coauthor of The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success. "You may get an advantage, but it's at the expense of building a good business relationship."

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