Can A Big Company Really Blog?
There’s an interesting article in The Economist about CEOs attending the Davos World Economic Forum being encouraged to blog (the theme this year is “The Shifting Power Equation”). On the face of it, this makes about as much sense as the CEOs being encouraged to slam dance at the raging party that Google guys Sergei and Larry are going to throw.
But, to get back to the question, is blogging really a suitable activity for a company boss? Seth Godin, author of business books such as “Small is the New Big”, and “All Marketers are Liars: the Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World”, is sceptical. Blogs work, he says, when they are based on the values of “candour, urgency, timeliness, pithiness and controversy (maybe utility if you want six)”. As he asks, “Does this sound like a CEO to you?”
Candour, in particular, will surely strike most bosses as a reckless risk in the liability-laden world of corporate America after Sarbanes-Oxley.
The notion of CEOs blogging grew out of the world of small business, in particular the online start-up, where having a blog is now as obligatory as having a an AJAX-laden homepage and a domain name that is either a misspelling or a made-up word. In the start-up context, a CEO blogging makes all the sense in the world, because the CEO and the other handful of team members ARE the company. The company hasn’t taken on a life of its own yet. There are shareholders, but most of them are the people blogging, so they are looking after their own interests. More importantly, there is no Sarbanes-Oxley threatening to send the CEO or other executives to jail if something they publish “spontaneously” to their blog runs afoul of SEC regulations.
To some degree, the difference in personality profile between an entrepreneurial CEO and a Fortune 500 CEO is the difference in the burdens they carry — and that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to blogging.
In his rant the other day about the slow evolution of PR, Stowe Boyd said:
The whole point is that the people formerly known at the audience — the edglings, as I call us — are participating in the blogosphere, and if individuals within companies want to, they can participate: as individuals. Companies don’t blog, or converse: people do.
People blog, that’s absolutely right, but a corporate blogger needs to balance being an “individual” with being a representative of the company. Even at the rank-in-file level, true, spontaneous, authentic (man, I’m starting to hate that word) blogging can be an impractical matter. Companies don’t tell their customer service reps, go ahead, say whatever you want, just make the customer happy. That might lead to a lot more happy customers, but it also might lead to untold process snafus, policy violations, even lawsuits in extreme cases.
It all comes back to control. Individuals can blog, because they are in control of their own identities (for better or worse). Small, private companies can blog, because there’s a fluidity and flexibility to how they operate — they don’t (necessarily) depend on tight controls. But big, public companies? They are all about control. “Internal controls,” Sarbanes-Oxley, audits, regulations. How do you blog “authentically” through so many layers of control?
The Economist cites a blog post from Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun, to demonstrate that even CEO’s who are earnestly trying to blog “authentically” are still completely hamstrung:
Jonathan Schwartz, president of Sun Microsystems, is perhaps the most dedicated blogger boss. But even his online scribblings are sporadic, and he has a keen eye for legal risk, to judge from a post on January 22nd called “Sun/Intel Relationship”. It reads: “Yes, we are making an announcement with Intel this morning, and no, you’re not going to get the inside skinny here before we hold our press conference.” Thanks for the candour, Jonathan.
I’m not suggesting that big public companies can’t benefit from more transparency, better customer relationship management, and less corporate brand speak. I just don’t see the kind of raw communication that made the blogosphere what it is (for better and worse) translating directly to big corporate communications. Big companies can take inspiration from the best of blogging and try to evolve in that direction, but in a post-Enron, post-Worldcom world, I’m don’t want CEOs of companies I’m invested in embracing “fast and loose.”
Scott Karp blogs “authentically” at Publishing 2.0.
I’m inclined to think no. The key point is blogging being tied to one individual. One person cannot speak frankly when he has to constantly account for the interests of a large company.
I think there is a wholesale misunderstanding of what blogging is. For centuries big companies have been effectively blogging. All staff go home and talk to their friends and family about their work. Some are positive about the big company, some are negative. Company reputations are largely built or destroyed on this “word of mouth”. Blogging is exactly the same; it gives employees of big companies the chance to say what they feel about the company they work for. That could, in just the same way, be positive or negative. The only difference between blogs and word of mouth is that blogs are more public. As a result big companies can see what is being said about them, whereas beforehand they didn’t know what people were saying in bars, at dinner parties and so on. What this means is that big companies should be encouraging every employee to blog about the company. The challenge for big business is not handling the blogs; instead it is to make the workplace so positive, that the blogs will inevitably be positive. The big companies that lots of people want to work for have lots of positive word of mouth. Big companies who want to “manage” blogging are almost certainly places where people dislike working. Indeed, the employees will say so in bars, homes, etc. In other words, blogs are just “word of mouth” from a psychological perspective. That’s how we as human beings perceive them. So, if companies want to manage blogs, do they also want to manage what we say at home? Or is that a step too far? Big companies can blog; indeed to survive they MUST blog.