In-House Bloggers Offer an Insider's View
Corporate America has joined the blogosphere.
Product marketers, software engineers and even a few top executives of major companies have started sharing their thoughts and advice in online journals known as blogs. But, as you'd expect, their offerings are far different from the political vitriol of the best-known bloggers or the stream-of-consciousness musings of teenage girls.
Michael Hyatt, chairman and chief executive of Bible publisher Thomas Nelson Inc., recently used his blog to urge workers at any company to respond to phone calls and emails quickly for the good of their careers. "If you are slow, they assume you are incompetent and [in] over your head. If you respond quickly, they assume you are competent and on top of your work," he advised. Another post predicted that e-books will start affecting the book business much sooner than expected.
Robert Scoble, a Microsoft Corp. software developer and manager, produces a revealing blog that both serves as a daily diary ("I didn't get to the Under the Wire conference. Sigh. I slept in and missed my plane.") and addresses issues about Microsoft products ("There's no way this thing is going to be able to meet the expectations of the hype being placed on it.").
In on the Action
Enthusiasts say such blogs by company employees -- sanctioned, if not sponsored, by the companies themselves -- put a human face on a corporation and provide a way to reach customers and counter critics. Corporate blogging, they say, also gives employees a way to display their personalities that normal business activities don't provide.
But the growing trend worries many corporate image specialists, who foresee a confusing array of corporate messages, some of which are so sanitized they lack credibility. Lawyers fear worse: that some employees' thoughts may provide fodder for plaintiffs' lawyers or give away company secrets or advice that a company prefers to sell.
Despite the concerns, a slew of big companies, including General Motors Corp. and Boeing Co., have jumped on the blogging bandwagon in the past year -- joining high-tech firms like Sun Microsystems Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. For these companies, the bigger risk is being left out of an online phenomenon in which an estimated 5% of Americans maintain blogs and 20% read them, according to a February Gallup poll.
"The biggest risk with regard to blogs is not having one" because companies then miss out on a burgeoning communications medium, according to a report from Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn., firm that advises many companies on technology issues.
Getting to Know You
A main selling point for blogs is that they serve as a more personal and informal way for companies to get their message out -- and tout their products.
Jeff Sandquist, who as Microsoft's director of developer and platform evangelism, is charged with boosting enthusiasm for the company among outside developers and partners. On his blog, he has included everything from pictures of his daughter's retro bicycle to his thoughts on whether software is useful or not. "It's amazing to have a very easy way to talk to customers," he says.
Mr. Sandquist adds that his blog gets several thousand hits a day, but says, "I don't blog for traffic. I blog to communicate." Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., started encouraging employees to blog back in 2003.
Mr. Hyatt says he began suggesting last year that employees blog in an effort to raise the visibility of Thomas Nelson and help people understand what book publishers do. He posted a proposed company policy on blogging on his personal blog and then changed it in response to posted suggestions, cutting the rules to 10 from 14 by combining several into "Obey the law." Mr. Hyatt and several dozen other employees of the Nashville, Tenn., publisher now blog periodically.
Robert Lutz, GM's vice chairman, blogged from an auto show in Geneva in February that an aerodynamic Saab concept car was "a statement that GM strongly believes in a strong future for Saab," a GM unit. In an earlier posting, he confessed his frustration that many observers believe GM hasn't improved quality.
Michael Wiley, GM's director of new media, says he proposed Mr. Lutz's blog as a way to "maybe change some perceptions about the company -- humanize us." He says Mr. Lutz embraced blogging as a way to confront what he believes are misperceptions about the Detroit-based auto maker's innovativeness and its product quality.
Blogging can be especially effective for small businesses. Ted Demopoulos, a public speaker and business consultant in Hampton Falls, N.H., says daily blogging greatly increased traffic to his business's Web site. Mr. Demopoulos, who writes about his book on blogging and business as well as other people's blogs and Web sites, says he gets around 10,000 visitors a month to his Web site, up from 100 monthly before he started blogging last year. According to search-engine experts, that jump is partly because search engines like Google look for constantly changing content like blogs and rate it higher in search results than Web pages that aren't updated regularly.
For some companies, blogs are becoming a way to address controversial issues or tweak rivals. Communications-equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc. has a public-policy blog where its Washington representatives comment. Recently, the representatives added to the blog comments from Mark Chandler, Cisco's general counsel, responding to the charge from critics, senators and congressmen that Cisco equipment is being used by the Chinese government to stifle dissent.
Mr. Chandler's comment: "The filtering capabilities of all Internet routing equipment, necessary for protection against viruses, spam and denial of service attacks, can be used to block access to sites for political reasons, anywhere in the world."
In January, Boeing's vice president of marketing, Randy Baseler, wrote in his blog, "Randy's Journal," about a statement by rival Airbus that it would compensate new customers for high fuel costs by giving them cash rebates. Mr. Baseler linked to an independent blog that highlighted the issue. Mr. Baseler concluded: "If Airbus is willing to pay customers to buy an airplane with significantly added fuel burn and emissions, just how green are they?"
Asked about the comment, an Airbus spokeswoman, Mary Anne Greczyn, wrote in an email: "Airbus doesn't pay its customers to buy airplanes. For Airbus to respond in any further detail to comments made on a blog, corporate or otherwise, gives such a recourse-free venue and its content more value than it's worth."
Watch Your Words
While employees are increasingly encouraged to express themselves in blogs, it doesn't necessarily mean they can write anything they want.
Some employees vent about ill-mannered bosses and controversial corporate policies as if they were conversing with a friend. In fact, employees who blog carelessly can get fired. There's even a word for it: "dooced." The word comes from the title of a blog written by Heather B. Armstrong, a Web designer in Los Angeles whose uncomplimentary remarks about her employer cost her her job in 2002. Ms. Armstrong, now a Salt Lake City housewife who says her blog title came from constantly mistyping "dude," admits on her blog that she was "stupid."
Today, her blog contains advice for other bloggers: "Never write about work on the Internet unless your boss knows and sanctions the fact that you are writing about work on the Internet."
Others continue to learn the lesson. Last year, the Dover Post, a newspaper in Delaware, fired a reporter for making allegedly racist remarks in his blog.
Stephen J. Hirschfeld, a labor lawyer in San Francisco with the firm Curiale, Dellaverson, Hirschfeld & Kraemer LLP, says companies have a right to discipline employees who damage the company, whether they are at work or at home. Employees "need to be careful not to defame or disparage the company, its management or its employees or customers," he says. "They need to understand they're held accountable."
Mr. Hirschfeld says that a group he heads, the Employment Law Alliance, found in a survey of 1,000 employees that only 15% of companies have blogging policies. He recommends that all companies establish clear policies. Otherwise, he warns, a company might have a hard time convincing a jury that it was justified in firing an employee for something he or she wrote on an anonymous blog from a home computer.
In fact, blogging anonymously -- a common practice on the Internet -- is a concern for companies. Many fear that a blogger who isn't using his name will still be identifiable as a company employee and attract attention by denigrating rivals, blasting politicians or sneering at the boss. So a core of many corporate blog policies is requiring bloggers to use their real names.
At IBM, Chris Barger, a corporate speechwriter who was asked to develop IBM's policy after his boss discovered his personal blog, says "having the [employee] name attached is important" to force people to be constructive and accurate. The Armonk, N.Y., computer maker applied its employee code to its blog policy, including prohibitions on disparaging competitors and keeping company information confidential. Still, "nothing is off-limits and people can talk about anything that occurs to them," Mr. Barger says.
Another issue that employee blogs face is credibility. Some experts say the content of these blogs may be viewed as just another marketing gimmick, especially if the blogger is a top executive.
Larry Weber, a veteran public-relations executive who heads W2 Group of Waltham, Mass., a firm specializing in electronic media, says top executives who blog may not seem believable compared with independent bloggers who are free to write whatever they want. Mr. Weber suggests limiting blogging to lower-level engineers and product experts, and encouraging them to comment on statements about their employers made in other, highly trafficked blogs.
Corporate blogging advocates say companies can preserve credibility by publicly accepting criticism. Most corporate blogs encourage readers to respond with posts that are attached to the original blog. They generally delete profane notes and commercial spam. Still, some permit highly critical comments.
In February, Mr. Lutz's "FastLane" blog at GM noted quality awards the company had received from J.D. Power & Co. It elicited many positive responses but also some sharp criticism of GM's dealers, which GM posted, including one that said: "I would like to be patriotic and by [sic] GM products, but your quality stinks and dealers don't care."
Of course, allowing freedom of expression on workplace blogs can result in statements that may make managers cringe.
Birdie Jaworski, an Avon Products Inc. representative in rural Las Vegas, N.M., has developed one of the most popular blogs hosted at news Web site Salon.com. She has even heard from book publishers urging her to write a memoir. One reason for Ms. Jaworski's popularity: her unvarnished reviews of Avon products, which she tries before peddling to customers.
Last fall, Ms. Jaworski wrote of an anti-aging cream: "I don't know how I'm going to get through a two-week trial! This stuff is giving me whopper zits!!!!!" In February, she disclosed that she had stuck with the regimen and has found "my skin is softer and more even-toned than when I started," although fine lines remain on her face. Avon says it encourages its independent representatives to express themselves freely. Avon says it encourages its independent representatives to express themselves freely.
- Career Journal
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