Corporate Blogging: Proceed With Caution

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My blog got me in trouble the other day.

I had just published a posting referring to a company event. It turns out the event is hush-hush. I had no idea. My supervisor came tearing down the hall, and–thanks to the magic of the Internet–I turned back the clock and took the posting down.

Corporate blogging can be tricky. Employers generally regard workers’ blogs with a wary eye, even when the blogs are authorized, like mine–and not without reason. What if I leak a trade secret? Report mistaken information? Embarrass the boss by kvetching about the poor soda selection in the kitchen vending machine?

By allowing a worker to blog about the company, the employer is to some extent letting the world see how the sausage is made. For any sausage-maker, the picture is not always pretty. So what should employers do: censor the material? Set strict guidelines? Keep their fingers crossed?

Why would corporations launch blogs at all? According to a 2005 survey by Backbone Media, an Internet marketing consultancy in Waltham, Mass., the top three reasons are that blogs are “another way to publish content and ideas,” a way to create “thought leadership,” and and a way to “build a community.”

The top concern for employers about blogs is “cost in terms of man hours,” says the survey. “Legal liability” comes second. So it turns out your boss is more concerned with the hours you spend researching, interviewing and crafting the blog entries so that they won’t get sued than they are about getting sued.

Still, blogs are worrisome enough to trigger a whole new wave of migraines for the general counsels of the corporate world. It’s laid the groundwork for a new breed of consultancy; an outsourced legal firm called The General Counsel “offers company executives ways to use blogging as a means to improve company reputation without inviting a host of legal troubles.”

Even workers who blog privately from home shouldn’t think they’re doing so with immunity. According to the American Management Association and ePolicy Institute’s 2006 survey,

nearly 2% of employers have fired workers for offensive blog content–including posts on employees’ personal home-based blogs.

Nancy Flynn’s 2006 book, Blog Rules, lists potential areas of legal trouble posed by blogs:

copyright infringement, invasion of privacy, defamation, sexual harassment and other legal claims; trade secret theft, financial disclosures, and other security breaches; blog mob attacks and other PR nightmares; productivity drains; and mismanagement of electronic business records.

By far the best strategy is for employers to set forth some road rules–a step many have as of yet failed to take. According to the AMA/ePolicy Institute survey,

8% of organizations operate business blogs. In spite of the risks, only 9% have policy governing the operation of personal blogs on company time; 7% have policy governing employees’ business blog use and content; 7% have rules governing the content employees may post on their personal home-based blogs; 6% use policy to control personal postings on corporate blogs; 5% have strict anti blog policies banning blog use on company time; and merely 3% have blog record retention policies in place.

In-house lawyers and HR staff need only Google “corporate blogs” to come up with dozens of recommended guidelines for blogging. Click here for 12 blog rules excerpted from Flynn’s book on the International Association of Online Communications web site. Here’s a legal guide for bloggers on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s web site.