Many companies are encouraging employees to blog on their behalf, but not without guidelines spelling out exactly what is acceptable for them to say
PR pros were among the first to recognize the importance of blogs. Ever since it became evident that a simple mention could devastate a company's reputation, keeping track of those mentions became part of the job. Measurement companies have even introduced products to help companies monitor and analyze what's being said about them in the blogosphere.
But now some of the world's most powerful companies have decided that one of the best ways to control the blogosphere is to become a part of it. Companies like General Motors, Sun Microsystems, and Hewlett-Packard were among the first to get involved in the corporate blogging game, using it as another means of disseminating information while inviting feedback from clients, customers, and the public.
Some companies are now taking it a step further, encouraging employees to join in the blogging phenomenon, as well - albeit with some carefully crafted instructions.
"Companies, in general, are understanding the role employee blogging can play in improving corporate reputation," says Christopher Hannegan, SVP and director of Edelman's employee engagement practice.
That might be so, but the firm recently surveyed 120 global companies about their employee communication trends and discovered that only 30% have a policy on employee blogging.
Steve Rubel, SVP of client services at CooperKatz & Co., says that employee blogging offers companies the benefit of having more than one voice in the marketplace. "It sends an immediate message to the media and customers and constituents ... that they care, they're open, they want to engage in dialogue, [and] that they want to be real and not just be giving a public message," he says. Whether employees blog or not, Rubel says, guidelines are a must. "You want them moving in a direction that you want to move," he adds.
Yahoo is one of the latest companies to create employee blogging guidelines. The policy encourages staff to engage in the practice while reinforcing the protocol for doing so.
"Anything related to Yahoo policy, inventions, strategy, financials, [or] products that has not been made public cannot appear in your blog under any circumstances," it reads. "Disclosing confidential or proprietary information can negatively impact our business and may result in regulatory violations for our company."
The guidelines also encourage employees to consult with more knowledgeable colleagues when writing about unfamiliar topics. "This courtesy will help you provide your readers with accurate insights, especially when you are blogging outside your area of expertise," it says. "If there is someone at Yahoo who knows more about a topic than you, check with them to make sure you have your facts straight."
Last month, IBM also decided to publicize a policy encouraging employees to blog. "We're a company of experts, so the blogosphere is a natural extension of what we've been doing for years," Jim Finn, VP of corporate communications at IBM, told PRWeek last month.
The policy requires employees who blog to identify themselves as IBM staff when writing about the company. They also must write in the first person and make it clear that they are speaking for themselves, not on IBM's behalf.
"We believe in transparency and honesty," the guidelines state. "Nothing gains you notice in the 'blogosphere' more than honesty - or dishonesty."
Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer for Intelliseek, says it is important for firms to establish key terms and conditions about staff behavior on blogs.
"I think there's hyper-paranoia about the blog space," he says, citing the "permanence" of what's posted on the web.
But Hannegan says that most employees will exhibit common sense when blogging. "For the most part, employees aren't stupid," he says. "They know if they post confidential information, they'll get in trouble for it."
While some companies might be concerned about what employees will say about them in the blogosphere, Blackshaw says parameters of restrictions should be considered carefully.
"Companies may want to think twice before saying that employees can't give any details about their job experience," he says. In fact, research by Intelliseek shows that the overwhelming majority of bloggers' postings about their employers were of the "I love my job" variety.
Still, Hannegan notes that employees are less likely to blog about frustrations with the company if there is another outlet for their frustrations. So facilitating greater employee-manager communication might help alleviate a staff member's need to vent on the web.
One of the reasons employee blogs have garnered so much attention as a PR tactic, he says, is that employees bring more credibility to the public than a CEO or top-level executive. "People are more likely to identify with [bloggers] if they talk like a regular person," he says.
Rubel agrees that employee bloggers should be able to engage in a real dialogue with the public. "The key thing is that companies blog from the heart of the organization," he says. "[They should choose] people who are going to look at the company in a hard way ... the good, bad, and the ugly."
Some companies are asking staffers to contribute to their blogs in other ways. Yogurt company Stonyfield Farm's newest blog, Baby Babble, invites staffers to submit information about their experiences as parents.
Cathleen Toomey, VP of communications, says that the company's blogs purposely explore topics that aren't directly related to its products. "You can't blog your product incessantly and expect people to be interested," she says. "It's a very, very different take on blogs. They are about topics that people truly care about, and [they] have unusual voices, not a corporate voice."
Surprisingly, some of the biggest tech companies are among those without a policy on employee blogging. Though Microsoft has more than 1,500 company bloggers, it has no formal policy regarding it. However, it does advise employees to abide by general company rules.
"We see blogging as a great opportunity for direct and deep two-way conversations with developers and customers," says a Microsoft spokeswoman who asked not to be identified. "We get important, real-time feedback on our products, and customers get greater insight into what's going on with key technologies inside the company."
GM, which has attracted attention for its FastLane blog, does not currently have a policy regarding employee blogging, says Mike Wiley, director of new media. However, the company is now in the process of forming a committee to address employee participation in blogs and other online communications, such as message boards.
Lynann Bradbury, SVP of internet communications for Waggener Edstrom, says companies have to be careful not to get caught up in putting policies in place to control employee blogging. "If your number-one focus is around guidelines and policies, you're missing the point," she says. "The real focal point should focus on how transparent your company is willing to be and how much you want to empower employees to have an authentic voice to share with constituents.
"You're not just communicating with bloggers; the blogging community is the medium," she adds. "You're reaching not only bloggers themselves, but also your customers, partners, competitors, and others throughout the community."
She adds that policies on employee blogging vary by company, rather than by industry. "I think it's dependent on how open a culture they want to have," she says.