Finding out that a staffer writes a blog can make employers nervous, but Matthew Creamer discovers that if managed well, it can work to the company's advantage.More than two years ago, a midsize New York PR agency realized a potential nightmare when staff members discovered that one of their own was publishing an online journal that was often critical of the agency's management and clients. Though the employee didn't name any names, anyone who knew the blogger or where she worked could have figured out what companies the criticisms were leveled at, according to an executive who asked that her identity and name of the agency be withheld. The entries, a catalogue of the frustrations of corporate life, read like the diary of someone who's seen Office Space or read Dilbert too many times. Amid tales of monumental efforts in time-wasting, the blogger described late nights in her cubicle "debating semantics with corporate idiots." In a separate entry, she carped, "I wonder how much longer I can deal with mediocrity and just plain idiocy of corporate America." The agency reacted quickly upon discovering the website. Its lawyer drafted a harsh letter for the blogger to sign, in effect an admission that she violated the terms of the company's confidentiality agreement. And, of course, she had to stop writing the blog, much of which was composed on her work computer. Within a few months, she left the agency for another job. Luckily, the clients never got wind of the journal. Despite the memory of dodging that bullet, the agency still doesn't have a formal policy on blogs. Instead, it allows the confidentiality agreement that all new employees sign to cover the issue. Many other employers are treating blogging, which has grown exponentially more popular with its successful use by Howard Dean's Presidential campaign, in much the same way. They're just coming to grips with how to deal with employees who keep an online journal on company time or, worse, blog about the company itself. At this point, policies range from the very liberal to the very strict. A few employers are encouraging employees to keep blogs, some are banning them, and many more are trying to control the content. Says Lloyd Benson, EVP at Schwartz Communications, "Allowing an employee to blog without knowing what they're saying is like putting them on the phone with a reporter without media training. It's another public face on the company, one that should be monitored and controlled." But exactly how this monitoring and control should take shape is anything but an easy question to answer. Illustrating in theoretical terms just how vexing an issue employee blogs can be is a recent hypothetical case study in the September issue of the Harvard Business Review. In a fictional scenario that teased out the tension of employee blogging, executives at a manufacturer of surgical gloves are given fits by a mid-level employee who keeps a blog that despite - or perhaps because of - its irreverence made her a hit in the industry and a kind of accidental marketing vehicle. A trio of real-life experts - a law professor, a CEO of a software company, and an HR executive - offered dramatically different analyses of the situation, but a common thread was the importance of workplace communication around the issue of blogging. They also agreed that prohibiting blogging is, in effect, an invitation for employees, perhaps ones disgruntled by the policy, to set up websites. "Blogging is like many other things in life: The harder you try to prevent it, the more it makes people want to do it," says Christopher Hannegan, Edelman SVP and US director of employee engagement. "Companies have got to get at the root of what causes people to blog, which is usually that they are unhappy or disengaged." One of the ways to do this, says Hannegan, is to embrace other forms of employee communications that are more easily overseen by management. "One thing we're starting to see some companies ask is, 'How do we take the wind out of the sails of those people who might start blogs by giving them company-sanctioned ways to let off steam?' An example is companies who do message boards on their intranets." A few companies, particularly Microsoft, lead the pack in using employee blogs as a potent PR channel for the company's goals. Employee Robert Scoble's postings are widely read because of their frankness and the insight they provide into a massive corporation. But its blogging policy drew Microsoft some heat when it fired a worker for posting a photograph he should not have. But at smaller companies, blogging is more easily monitored. Kevin Dugan's employer knows about the blog he's been writing for more than a year. Dugan is senior PR consultant at HSR Business to Business, and regularly weighs in on PR and marketing issues. At the top of his blog is a disclaimer clearly showing that these ideas are Dugan's, and not directly supported by his employer. "My agency believes that an opinion is worth 80 IQ points," Dugan says. "So they support the blog. But like any media outlet's editorial page, I make it clear it is my opinion. This gives me the freedom to write about anything." But the blog acts as more than just a soapbox for Dugan. "I indirectly market the agency's work and philosophies," he says. "But to keep the content third party and substantive, I try not to directly promote specific things. I use my own experiences and insights to support assertions in my posts. After working here for seven years, the agency's work and its take on things are bound to be reflected in the blog." What's more, Dugan's site helps his professional stature. His blogging contributed education points toward maintaining his APR status. Indeed, Rebecca Blood, blogger and author of The Weblog Handbook, says that one of benefits of blogs is that they can make a relative unknown a sought-after expert on a particular area practically overnight. "Blogs can act as a filter for readers in a profession, and people establish themselves as an authority in six months or a year," she says. "I don't see the danger in that. Companies would be stupid not to take advantage of it." ----- Technique tips Do establish a clear, consistent blogging policy on what may be published and on when employees may work on their blogs Do mandate disclaimers to separate employee opinion from corporate policy Do establish other forms of employee communications as an alternative to blogs Don't try to enforce a universal ban on blogging Don't allow blogs to go unmonitored or lose sight of the fact that people outside the company are reading them Don't overlook the fact that blogs are a way to market your company and highlight the achievements of employees
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