Beware of Bloggers with Baggage

The 2008 presidential campaign is shaping up as a watershed moment for online politicking, so it’s appropriate that the first mini-scandal of the season should involve a pair of bloggers. The story is cautionary tale for businesses as well.

Act One: In early February, the John Edwards campaign announces the hiring of two writers, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, both fairly well-known in the hothouse world of political Web sites. Liberal bloggers swoon at this Web-savvy move by the erstwhile vice-presidential nominee, not to mention the attention paid to liberal bloggers.

Act Two: Persons unfriendly to Edwards quickly unearth blog entries written by the women at their personal sites before joining the campaign, which strike some observers as anti-Catholic screeds, and others as typically scabrous blog commentary. The story of the politically incorrect bloggers spreads from the Web to the traditional press; hay is made by political pundits. Edwards distances himself from the statements but does not fire Marcotte and McEwan.

Act Three: Marcotte and McEwan resign in order to halt the barrage of hostile e-mail and blog-posts, and to stop the bleeding for Edwards. Anyone familiar with the long memory of search engines and the gaffe-phobic culture of political campaigns wonders, what was the Edwards camp thinking? How could it have been caught so flat-footed by the inevitable reaction to the very public opinions of its staffers? It’s not as if this scenario is new anymore: In 2004, the John Kerry campaign Web site killed links to other blogs after critics pointed to the incendiary words of one of the linked bloggers, Markos “Daily Kos” Moulitsas.

The Edwards campaign is close-mouthed about the details of the whole affair, including the internal politics of the hirings and departures, as are Marcotte and McEwan. But at least some lessons are clear, for campaigns as well as companies that allow people to blog (or that hire people who may blog): Google is forever, so you need to know what your people have said in the past and be prepared to answer for it.

That doesn’t mean you should hire boring people. As Dan Gillmor pointed out in a column for this magazine last year, the culture is changing as more and more folks create an electronic trail by recording their thoughts and deeds online. Understanding that reality, and formulating ways to deal with it, are part of the new due diligence. Knowing what people have published, and having policies on which words are owned by your organization and which aren’t, on what’s acceptable and what isn’t, are the way to do business now.

Make no mistake: This is a business issue. Microsoft probably didn’t risk much by hiring writer John Udell and analyst Michael Gartenberg recently, but who knows what baggage less-well known employees may bring with them? Google does-and competitors will, too.

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