Seven rules for corporate blogging

Microsoft’s Robert Scoble, who cowrote a book on corporate blogging called Naked Conversations, now seems intent on turning himself into a case study for why companies shouldn’t blog. The posts on his company-sponsored blog, Scobleizer, have become increasingly shrill and antagonistic of late. He recently implied that bloggers who run AdSense ads are incapable of writing objectively about Google, and last week he launched an ad hominem attack on journalists he disapproves of – using terms like “100% incompetent” and “jerk” – and pedantically lectured the blogosphere on how to tell “credible journalism” from “non-credible journalism.”

Microsoft has spent the last couple of years trying hard to rid itself of its image as a corporate bully. Now, it has a bully in the blogosphere. That’s not good.

With the Scoble case in mind, let me offer seven simple and unfashionable rules for corporate blogging. I don’t know how credible they are, since they reflect my own personal opinions, but I’ll let you make that judgment.

Don’t do it. If you have no compelling business reason to get involved in the blogosphere, then don’t. While there’s no evidence, beyond a few anecdotes, that corporate blogging leads to better business results, there are clearly risks. If you give bloggers too much freedom, they may “go native” and tarnish your reputation by writing something stupid. If you try to rein them in, you’ll be attacked for being a dinosaur. That’s a lose-lose situation – the kind companies should avoid if at all possible. And don’t buy that nonsense about needing to have “conversations” with the marketplace. That’s an ideology, not a strategy.

Use blogs to advance your business interests. OK, you’ve decided to ignore my first rule. Fine. But don’t get carried away. For companies, blogging should be treated as another channel for corporate communications, with its own strengths and weaknesses. You should use that channel to get your message out, not to give employees a sand pile for self-expression. Yes, corporate bloggers should write with honesty and personality, but they should never forget – nor let their readers forget – that they’re speaking on behalf of their employer. If a corporate blogger is embarrassed to be promoting his company’s interests in public, he shouldn’t be a corporate blogger.

Stick to your goals. Maybe the goal of your blogging program is to help customers use your products more effectively. Maybe it’s to make your company more attractive to potential recruits. Maybe it’s to influence the public or lawmakers. The important thing is to be clear about your objectives, to stick to them and, as with any corporate program, to routinely evaluate how well you’re meeting them. If blogging isn’t working, then change what you’re doing (or who’s doing it). If it still isn’t working, then stop it.

Choose your bloggers wisely. Blogging is a hot medium. The people who blog for your company should be ones who can keep their cool – and who aren’t likely to fall in love with their own words. Often, the people who most want to be allowed to blog are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be allowed to blog.

Assign blogging buddies. You need to trust your bloggers, not censor them. On the other hand, blogging makes publishing so simple that having some kind of circuit breaker can make a lot of sense. Think about requiring each of your corporate bloggers to have a blogging buddy – a colleague who reads each post before it’s published. All boggers have had the experience of hitting the “publish” button too soon – and then regretting it. A second set of eyes will solve most problems before they even happen. And your bloggers will thank you for that (after, perhaps, some initial whining).

Be wary of allowing comments. Most people who comment on other people’s blogs are smart and insightful. But “most” isn’t “all.” In addition to being a spam-magnet, blog comments can be nasty, obscene, and offensive. This can lead to another lose-lose situation: If you don’t censor comments, you’ll end up with stuff that can embarrass your company. If you do censor them, you’ll be accused of, well, censorship. In most cases, it’s best just to turn off the comment feature from the get-go. That may annoy the true believers, but they’re a tiny minority anyway.

Call in the lawyers. I hate to say it, but if you’re allowing your employees to blog on your dime, you’re liable for what they write. Better safe than sued.

To sum up: People blogging on behalf of their employers don’t need to wear suits, but they should wear clothes. Independent bloggers can afford to blog “naked.” Corporate bloggers can’t.

59 Comments

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59 Responses to Seven rules for corporate blogging

  1. The debate in the comment section points to the fact that there is a fine dotted line between a “corporate” blogger and an employee who happens to blog. This trend will continue as technologies blur the line between when we are “on the clock.”

    Is there a difference if an employee presents themselves as independant or not? After all, they still are a face and voice and in some form reflect on the company.

    Nick your guidelines would work for a traditional “corporate blog,” but if you are going to treat it as just another form of corporate communications, then you should stick with step #1.

    We live in the real world, when you decide to open yourself, there is a certain amount of risk and vulnerability. HOWEVER, there is also a tremendous opportunity to bring people in, create a community and tell your story.

    Last notes:

    - I think the idea of a buddy blogger could work well (though you might want to disclose who your buddy is)

    - Bob Lutz at GM does not filter his posts through lawyers and they allow comments (though they do filter out personal attacks and product issues)

    As always Nick, you managed to spark a healthy debate.

  2. Yum, yum vanilla.

    It sounds like a highly effective way to purge the fresh air and spontaneity from all attempts at honest communication. Perhaps MS could develop and market a blog program that auto-generates only corporate sanctioned posts.

  3. I appreciate companies that take Nicholas advice for one reason: for clearly identifying themselves as companies I’d rather not work with, for, around or through.

    Nicholas: can you point to even one case of a corporate blog that has backfired on a corporation? The sample data is now overwhelming…surely there is at least one (or a dozen) good cases of companies not following your advice and then paying for it…

    How about what happened with the Chevy SUV ad recently? I haven’t had a positive thing to say about GM since the last time I owned an American car…till now. If this sorty of openness were apart of their corporate culture they would be building better cars.

    As for Scoble…so he lost it for a couple of days. Big deal. Do you think having employees who are passionate about their employer hurts Microsoft? I think it says a lot about Robert that he cared enough to get fired up. And it says a lot about Microsoft, too.

    Sometimes what makes business sense on paper just isn’t the right thing to do. I like the idea of coporations becoming more human, instead of human beings becoming more corporate. Eeeew.

  4. Great to see your input that lawyers should be involved. Few employers appear to have policies on blogging, though blogging has become a popular new form of communication. There is an article by the Northwestern University School of Journalism studies employer reactions to blogging in and on the workplace.

  5. Steffi

    Hey ,Thanks for the wonderful and useful Blog for we corporate bloggers.Found another post on this…its worth reading..http://fly2.ws/blogging-policies

    Thanks:)

  6. SallyF

    I have always been impressed with the Sun Developer Network forum. Anyone can register and post anything, the operators usually respond to complaints by simply deleting threads. That mostly works. Sun’s blogs are of varying quality and relevance to Sun’s mission. The one’s with less traffic seem to trail off into a mix of on-mission entries and personal blogging. There is a clearly-worded disclaimer at the bottom of the page that they do not represent Sun corp., even though some of the blogs are some top-level company officers.

    There are other companies that need to be more careful and tight-lipped. They generally restrict themselves to press releases that, obviously, have gone through marketing and legal.

  7. SallyF

    At the other extreme end of spectrum, I suppose, is Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne. His Wikipedia article is a bit slanted and dwells upon references to Star Wars and 9/11 caricatures that he has made. Byrne should just follow your rule #1, but not only for blogs. In his August 2006 postings, he includes an apology for this sound bite: “Somewhere in America there are Grandmas eating dogfood so some jerk on Wall Street can drive a Porsche” and titles for new entries like “Something Hinky This Way Comes”. Some of that might have made it through legal if he had insisted but his marketing department would have stopped it dead in it tracks. He is under investigation by the SEC this year and a quick look at his August 2007 shows… uh oh. “Our Corrupt Federal Regulator the SEC”. While he simply addresses the reader, he dares to sign it “Most respectfully, Patrick M. Byrne”.

    Let me digress for a paragraph: maybe the SEC does have a few rough edges. I’ve gotten to know an interesting fellow named Sam Sloan. He is the last known non-lawyer to make his own oral arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and win a unanimous decision in his favor. He was doing some penny-stock trading that the SEC did not like and they kept re-applying a 10-day suspension regulation that was promulgated with the obvious intention of being used only once as an emergency measure. I bring this all up because of the cuddly teddy bear running the SEC at the time was William Casey, later Ronny Raygun’s top spook. Billy had a bit of a mean streak in him, but I suppose it is a useful trait for those kinds of positions: not quite Nixon-foolish mean, just unforgiving. He was a careful man, and I find it curious that his brain self-destructed from the inside out. Ooops! That line would never pass legal either.

  8. Two years on, I think things have moved on a bit – see the BBC’s relatively relaxed policy.

    More and more folks are getting used to their people blogging – and even doing it themselves.

  9. Matthewkrieger

    @Sean -

    >

    As far as debating the definition of a blog is concerned, this may be true. But I look at it less as how to define “blog” and more as what the author chooses to do. Some people want to post and allow comments, other people want to host only their content and not have a discussion on their site (of course a “reply” can occur anywhere else). Neither is good or bad, it’s author’s choice.

    Regards