Corporate blogs engage audiences, but how far can they reach? Google puts the medium's boundaries to the test by using its blogs for issues management.
The corporate world's embrace of blogging has been half-hearted at best. While some companies see the potential to reach a vast array of audiences, others see blogging as merely a soapbox from which its executives can pontificate. At its worst, corporate blogging is nothing more than self-important navel gazing or is simply nonexistent.
But Google is one company that recognizes the ability of blogs to not only give the brand a voice, but to further serious policy debates. Google is no stranger to controversy, and it is now using its blogs to address those issues for which it's being criticized, among them the company's efforts to hire Kai-Fu Lee from Microsoft to run its new China R&D center, a move Microsoft has fought; a copyright case involving insurance company Geico; and The Authors Guild's lawsuit to stop Google Print, which can search the text of books.
Google's legal counsel and others have blogged about all these controversies and why Google is taking a particular approach to each case. Google's decision to use the practice in this manner brings blogging, maybe for the first time, into the realm of issues management.
But by giving these sticky legal issues a voice, Google is walking into uncharted territory.
"We try to have a variety of content on our blogs that represents who we are," explains Steve Langdon, Google's senior manager of corporate PR. "And that includes providing information about complex topics quickly. A blog post is an effective way to do that."
The posts in question include comments from VP and general counsel David Drummond on the Geico copyright suit, associate general counsel Nicole Wong on the tussle with Microsoft, and VP of product management Susan Wojcicki on the Authors Guild lawsuit.
Langdon says that a press release would be too formal, and that the blog is much more immediate.
"We would not announce earnings on the blog," he says, "but this was an appropriate use. We can put up quite a bit of information and make that available to any number of people - analysts, media, influencers. We want to communicate with a lot of people quickly."
He points to www.kaifuleegoogle.com, a Chinese blog the company launched to communicate with Chinese audiences about why Lee was important to Google's plans for China.
Media coverage has ranged from the matter-of-fact, noting comments on the blogs, to
high praise, with InternetNews.com calling the use of blogs for issues management "remarkable."
Michael Robinson, a VP with Levick Strategic Communications, calls Google's use of blogs "brilliant." He argues that, given Google's stature and internet dominance, it's a natural way for the company to communicate with its stakeholders.
"This is where Google lives and breathes," says Robinson. "The world is moving so quickly now. The ability to get out there and tell your side of the story before rumors overwhelm the marketplace is critical."
Striking the right tone
Levick also praises Google for using a conversational tone and for not getting bogged down in legal or technological jargon.
Others praise Google for using that tone, as well, though some point out that it's still ultimately a corporate voice. Media consultant Peter Himler observes that Google's assistant legal counsel is writing in her own voice, but she's still delivering a corporate message. He argues that the whole phenomenon of blogging is predicated on the individual and a bottom-up approach. But corporate environments are top down, and readers are likely to wonder if it's Wong commenting on the fight with Microsoft or if it's really the thoughts of CEO Eric Schmidt, and ultimately if the comments are sincere.
"What Google is doing is great," says Himler, "as long as the person blogging is doing it sincerely and in their own voice."
Of course, most corporate blogs will be viewed as inauthentic by blogging purists regardless of tone or content. But that doesn't mean that corporations shouldn't participate, particularly when it comes to addressing controversial issues. Indeed, some say it's not a matter of if companies will need to do this, but when.
"Companies need to be learning about this now," advises Lori Russo, a VP with Stanton Communications. "This is not something on the horizon. We must educate ourselves about this."
Robinson sees blogs as essential issues management tools. But companies would be wise to use them sparingly. Companies run the risk of getting too excited about blogs and letting that drive their communications strategy, instead of the business and communications strategy dictating when and where blogs are a good idea.
"A blog is not the answer to everything," adds Robinson.
Indeed, many companies are still stumbling and struggling to figure out how best to use them. So delving into the blogosphere via issues management is hardly the ideal introduction. But it does seem like the natural evolution, says David Krejci, a VP with Weber Shandwick who oversees the firm's web relations practice. But he cautions against relying just on blogs. He understands Google's rationale for using them in such a fashion, but there are millions of people who don't read blogs, and companies risk ignoring and potentially alienating audiences if they think they will cast the widest net.
"Companies are selling themselves short if this is the only way they handle communications around complicated issues," warns Krejci. "You're selling yourself short if this is the only way you're addressing issues. It's refreshing, because it can be done in a way that is personable and reminds you that there are people behind these issues. But you must do more than just this."
And the jury is still out as to how effective this ultimately will be, cautions Stanley Collender, MD of Financial Dynamics' Washington, DC, office. The intent of Google is nothing new - Op-Eds have been around for years. But with the mainstream media news hole shrinking, it's the medium, not the message, that is changing, and it's a change that is completely in keeping with Google's culture, he says. And while many companies are talking about moving in this direction, Google is one of the few that have actually done it.
"Perhaps the smartest element of Google's action here is adding its voice to a forum that's already talking about it," adds Krejci. "Meaning, you search the blogs for 'Google Print' and 'lawsuits,' and tons of blogs are going to pop up with erroneous claims about Google. By putting up its own blog and setting the record straight, Google's voice is heard, as well."
The last thing Google wants is someone searching the internet about one of these issues and discovering the company has nothing to say, adds Krejci. Not only would Google be perceived as guilty by its absence, but also the company would have missed an opportunity to tell its side of the story.
Doing all the talking
But Google is still missing an opportunity to involve those audiences it is so eager to reach with these blogs, says Mike Manuel, a client supervisor with Voce Communications who works with the agency's blog practice. Like any good corporate blog, Google uses its own to talk directly to the audiences in a way that it couldn't otherwise.
But the conversation is largely one-sided, as the blog doesn't allow comments, which Manuel says has been a long-standing criticism. But that decision enables Google to talk about sensitive issues and protects it from a controversial conversation, as there's no way for readers to talk back.
"People want information, not a formatted document," says Google's Langdon. "This lets us talk in a way that you can't in a press release. It's an easier way to communicate information people want to know. It helps us be a little more transparent by posting publicly our thoughts on a topic that is in the realm of public discussions."