Corporate Blogging: What Could Go Wrong?

By Dan Gillmor  |  Posted 10-16-2006

Corporate Blogging: What Could Go Wrong?

Ed Engineer is on the R&D team at Bigcorp Inc., the world's largest seller of frazmajams. Here's an excerpt from his company blog, on which he is known as a BigCorp employee with specific knowledge of an upcoming product launch:

Whoa. The frazmajam prototype rocks. We'll be so far ahead when this thing hits the street. The features are pretty cool if I say so myself. My team did the best one, which works this way...

Which prompts an e-mail from his supervisor, Susan:

I just saw your post on the new 'jam. THAT WAS PROPRIETARY INFORMATION, A TRADE SECRET. Our policy manual is absolutely clear that you are not to disclose trade secrets. Delete it immediately. And come see me. We need to have a talk about your blog.

The story you've just heard is fiction. But it comes awfully close to reality. Something like it has already played out in more than one company. And more than once, no doubt, our friend Ed has been handed his walking papers after visiting his boss.

But here's the wrinkle: That kind of scenario is not, in my view, the most serious kind of problem a company can have with bloggers and other internal folks who are moving to the front lines of communications. It's the obvious case, and something companies ought to guard against, but it's not the worst-case scenario.

The real danger is not letting your employees harness the full power of an interactive, edge-in communications medium. If you keep the reins too tight, you won't reap the benefits of informed and passionate readers and users. And sometimes, if you're not communicating freely with your readers and users, bad news can catch them by surprise.

For example, suppose Ed had posted this message instead:

We're having a lot of trouble with the new frazmajam. The beta testers say the wofflegear keeps slipping under stress. I can't see how we'll ship on time.

Was that a trade secret, too? Probably. And in a lot of companies, you can imagine a general freak-out by people above Ed in the organization chart.

But I'd like to argue that maybe this second posting was the best possible thing Ed could have done for his company. Maybe his openness about this problem would have led to a different sort of scenario, namely one in which the disclosure of the problem could lead to a better solution. Customers and other readers have among them a large store of information and creativity, and if they are encouraged to participate in a community built around a product's design and launch, they might well contribute ideas that help companies such as BigCorp find a fix.

The kinds of things most likely to happen with staff blogs and other "conversational" media are pretty benign. Yet corporate lawyers are surely growing more worried about the phenomenon—even as it proves its value in an increasing variety of situations.

The rules of the road for open media run the gamut, from "Don't even think about it," to a simple "Don't embarrass us," to meticulously detailed written policies. Microsoft, the current champion of staff blogs, as far as I can determine, follows the middle rule, trusting company employees to get it right.

The type of industry makes a difference as to what rules are laid down, of course. I don't expect a pharmaceutical company to allow much, if any, public blogging by staffers. Federal regulations about what drug makers can disclose, and when, are immensely strict. Free speech does not apply to these folks in their professional lives. Same goes for the financial industry.

But the majority of companies spend too much time worrying about unfiltered comments getting out. They should be more concerned with what happens when lawyers, executives and PR/marketing folks get the notion that blogs and other such media are nothing more than a new way to manipulate information. From my perspective, this can lead to an even worse outcome.

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Consider, for example, a hypothetical CEO blog. It's written by marketing people, vetted by lawyers, and lacks any and all human voice. In other words, it's a press release. Is there a less effective way to communicate? At least a press release doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is.

Companies should be embracing conversations with their constituencies. And conversation is, first, about listening, and then about speaking in a human way.

What are a company's constituencies? They vary widely, but include (not necessarily in order of importance) customers, employees, suppliers, local communities where the company does business, retailers, investors and—oh, yes—the media. Some of what a company tells the world will be of interest to most or all of those groups. Some will be of interest to only one or two. The messages need to be tailored deliberately for each, but the easiest way to tailor the exchange is to make it conversational, to listen to what the other parties have to say as much as telling them what you think or know.

I'd argue that a company already having multiple conversations with its constituencies will be better off when the inevitable problems hit. The reason is that conversation tends to engender trust. Control-freakish, top-down communications do not.

Dell Computer's recent woes offer an example of the latter case. The company's reputation for quality and service had been sliding, somewhat invisibly to the general public, over the past several years. At the same time, Dell had no blogging strategy to speak of. So when it dismissed increasingly public criticism of its practices, there was little residual goodwill in the word-of-mouth community. A Google search for "Dell hell" must be almost as disheartening to company execs at Dell as recent earnings reports.

Some PR and marketing folks have, as you'd expect, taken word-of-mouth as just another great opportunity to sell stuff. Fine, if it's up-front and honest. But word-of-mouth marketing should not mean, as Procter & Gamble and other companies have been doing with such cynicism, getting people to talk up products without disclosing the corporate inducements behind them. "Beyond lame" was one typical reader response to a P&G site, made to look as if it was written by users of its Secret Sparkle Body Sprays. In reality, the site is filled with advertising copy. If any friend of mine did this to me, that person would have one less friend.

A world of conversational communications can be so unstructured at times that the people who once thought corporate messaging was a command-and-control operation can't abide the inexactitude of it all. Understandably so, because they came to their positions in a simpler time, when the message went through a stratified system to specific people.

But the complexities don't justify retreat. They do justify appropriate caution, especially in the kinds of enterprises where proverbial loose lips actually sink ships, such as the military. In the end, the conversation is about culture. If senior people don't believe in the value of conversational communications, they won't happen. But bloggers aren't going away, and younger employees, customers, et al, now think this kind of communication is natural. And it's worth remembering a simple demographic fact: They are the future.

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