News Analysis: Should employees be free to blog?

Mobile phone firm Orange has suspended its community affairs manager for comments he made on a blog. Hannah Marriott asks whether companies should embrace staff's online musings or nip them in the bud

Nine per cent of bloggers will mention an employer in their postings, according to a 2005 Edelman/Intelliseek poll.

If those bloggers are calling their boss a ‘sandal-wearing bastard', or describing their job as ‘a formal system for ignoring public views while patronising them at the same time', the employer could have cause for concern.

Indeed, the bloggers who made the above remarks - ex-Waterstone's employee Joe Gordon and Orange community affairs manager Inigo Wilson - were sacked and suspended respectively.

Sackable offences
Apple, Delta Airlines, Google, Microsoft and Starbucks have also dismissed employees over blogs, and the fallout from such dismissals has usually caused more reputational damage than the blogs themselves. Wilson was suspended after customers complained about his ‘Lefty Lexicon' on the ConservativeHome forum. The treatise included musings on Islam, Palestinians and terrorists (‘no such thing. Only people suffering from "root causes" and "legitimate grievances'', according to the Lexicon).

Orange's decision to suspend him got a mixed reaction: while there was sympathy for Orange given the nature of Wilson's blog, others have cried foul over restricting freedom of speech.

But blogging staff can be a boon - the Edelman/Intelliseek survey found that bloggers were twice as likely to put their job in a positive light than they were to denegrate it. Firms must thus give staff guidelines on what is expected, in order to harness the opportunity and keep sensitive information secret.

The survey found that nearly 70 per cent of US firms have no policies or guidelines in place- a figure thought likely to be much higher in the UK.

PRWeek sought four views on blogging employees (see below).
Click here for Wilson's blog

‘Companies need to be very careful; most are woefully ignorant of the nature of the modern broadband world and the fact that websites and blogs, by their very nature, function on links. Taking action against one person may seem easy for a large company, but that person, through the web, has a voice that can be picked up, amplified and passed on like whale song in the ocean.

‘My own example showcases this: the story [see above] went from my blog to friends' blogs, then to online news services, followed rapidly by national and international journalists. ‘Depending on what has been said on the blog, it is probably more sensible for employers to go for the more reasonable "quiet word" approach to make it clear that certain subjects could lead to disciplinary action if continued; this lets both sides know where they stand.'

Joe Gordon is web editor of Forbidden Planet International

‘Since no organisation has ever found a way to manage the informal grapevine that prevails by the water cooler, it would be a futile exercise - and a missed opportunity - to ban blogging. In fact it would only create resentment and a greater desire to break the rules.

‘Most organisations have policies that govern employees talking to the media, which could be refreshed to include new social media. Internal communications can give guidance to employees on what is acceptable. This would at least encourage bloggers to stop and think.

‘Alternatively, internal communicators can work harder to help establish personal responsibility for CSR. This is a tough nut to crack, but the smart money will be on companies proactively looking to engage their employees to use social media as a way of creating more brand value, as opposed to destroying it.'

Darren Briggs is a partner at The Company Agency (and former head of internal comms at Vodafone)

‘The Orange blogger's suspension highlights one of the central difficulties that organisations face concerning social media: although many blogs are written in an employee's own personal time, any mention of their employer could damage the company's name.

‘In order to take legal action against a blogging employee, companies must have a clause within the employment contract that refers to staff not doing anything to bring the firm into disrepute.

‘It is particularly difficult for a company to justify immediately dismissing an employee, because such action should be caused by "gross misconduct" on the employee's part, implying that something pretty bad must have taken place.

‘This really is a case where the legal maxim that prevention is better than cure should apply. Organisations should ensure they have notified all staff of what is expected of them.'

Justin Patten (pictured) is principal at Human Law

‘Unfortunately the Orange case may reinforce a cautious attitude to blogging. But blogging offers the opportunity to create a stronger bond between companies and customers.

‘Since last year, we have asked staff to subscribe to a code of conduct before opening an official H&K blog. This includes guidelines and tips on how to maintain a blog, as well as a reminder of one's contractual obligation. This code of conduct does not specifically extend to personal blogging. However, we trust our staff to respect their contracts, employ­ment policies and code of conduct.

‘The best we can do is to minimise risks by educating our staff. Rather than deterring us, this just reminds us that the communication control taken for granted by many belongs to a bygone era. Being aware, prepared and engaged is the best approach to managing reputation in the blogosphere.'

Joël Céré is EMEA V-P, netcoms practice, Hill & Knowlton
Click here for Joël Céré's blog

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