Interview: Christopher Hannegan

SVP and director of employee engagement practice, Edelman

SVP and director of employee engagement practice, Edelman

Christopher Hannegan is Edelman's second blogger (behind CEO Richard Edelman). He maintains a blog at www.employeethinking.com and is the agency's employee engagement practice head. Fresh from publishing a white paper in September on the employee blogging landscape, Hannegan answered PRWeek.com's questions via e-mail about how Richard Edelman's blog has empowered Edelman employees, whether more CEOs would start up blogs, and how to handle an employee blogger who misbehaves.

Q: What would be your advice to a company that doesn't have an employee blogging policy set up by now?

A: Before jumping to the conclusion that they need a policy, a company should first discuss what role employee bloggers could play in enhancing their reputation or relationship with customers. Companies should also consider their current internal culture and state of employee engagement to understand how blogging would properly manifest itself within those conditions. For example, companies that have less formal internal cultures may want to consider a set of looser guidelines, rather than a formal policy. 

Q: What would you say the best opportunity is for having a workforce blogging without company oversight? And what do companies lose if they don't allow blogging?

A: Employees are at their most genuine and direct, which is most likely to build enduring relationships with customers and put a credible face on the company's public persona.
[If they don't allow blogging], companies lose the ability to keep a pulse on this interesting indicator of employee morale and what's really going on in the company among the employee ranks.

Q: How do you think internal blogs, read only by those in the corporation, can help aid internal communications?

A: Many companies like IBM make extensive use of blogs as knowledge-sharing tools for internal teams. CEO blogs are often read by internal as well as external audiences, providing CEOs a way to communicate more candidly with employees than they might otherwise be able to do through more sanctioned channels.

Q: Has technology changed employee communication much or do the same tenets apply?

A: While communicators should not abandon tried-and-true communications methods ? especially those improving face-to-face communication ? they need to consider new options as they become available. The latest technology that is quickly entering the employee communications space is podcasting, which is a very low-cost and dynamic way to reach employees for training or other communications purposes. Capital One bank actually purchased iPods for all its employees so the platform could be used as an employee communications tool. Podcasting is especially useful to companies with teenage and otherwise hard-to-reach employees.

Q: How do corporations best handle employee bloggers who have either done the company damage or violated a blogging contract?

A: Unless trade secrets have been given away or other legal boundaries violated, companies should be extremely cautious about firing a blogger simply for expressing a negative opinion about their employer. The blogosphere loves a good story about an employee being fired for blogging and the tone of such stories is always in favor of the employee. Google, Waterstone's, and Delta Air Lines have all gotten a large dose of negative publicity for firing employee bloggers. Companies should instead cultivate their relationship with employee bloggers to help them understand the important role they play in shaping their employer's reputation and relationships with customers. If a line has been crossed, it should be thoughtfully discussed with the offender before rash action is taken. In most cases, this is all the more reason to have some kind of guideline in place. Otherwise companies and employees are left to their own to interpret what's appropriate.

Q: Do you expect employee blogging to increase, stay at the same level, or decrease?

A: I expect employee blogging will continue to increase. While it's impossible to say exactly how many employee bloggers are out there, the best guess that we can make is about 9% of all blogs contain comments about people's employers. Considering that there will be about 35 million blogs by the end of 2005, that's already a staggering number and one that we think will only increase as the population in general has increased exposure to blogs and becomes more comfortable interacting with them.

Q: What about CEOs blogging? Do you expect it to increase, stay the same, or decrease?

A: I don't foresee a large increase in the number of CEOs blogging. It is extremely challenging to have a leadership blog be credible if the entries are written by someone other than the blog owner, and few CEOs have the time to muse about a weekly blog posting, and the public knows that. In those cases, it's better for them to not even attempt it rather than to have staff members writing the postings for them. However, if a company is fortunate enough to have a CEO who will dedicate time to crafting his or her own postings and really doing it right, the company should take full advantage of it. Companies should also consider whether or not it would be more effective to have the head of a business unit or subsidiary blogging rather than the CEO.

Q: How has Richard Edelman blogging affected the organization?

A: Richard's blog has had an amazing impact on our organization and people who are important to us. Richard is an extremely complex and interesting personality, and his blog reflects that. It gives people access to his thinking that would not otherwise have it. Although he is very visible to our employees in general, his blog gives our employees around the world the chance to learn more about what he's thinking and trends that he's tracking. Often his postings inspire lively debate around the company, and employees will post comments back. Perhaps most importantly, Richard has set the example of practice what you preach and blazed a blog trail that many of us are now following ? I was the second "official" blogger at Edelman and others have followed. There was no way we could credibly talk to our clients about blogging if we weren't involved in blogosphere conversations ourselves. 

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