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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