More Thoughts on Corporate Blogging

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Last week I blogged about the perils of corporate blogging. I cited a study, the Corporate Blogging Survey of 2005 by Backbone Media. Its lead author, John Cass–who is also author of Strategies and Tools for Corporate Blogging (to be published in April by Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann)–writes in with some interesting points:

There can indeed be harmful consequences from starting a blog, the Mark Jen story comes to mind, he was a Google employee who wrote critical comments about Google’s benefits packaged compared to his former employer, Microsoft, as well as writing about future Google projects, all of this during a sensitive time when the company was going public. Mark Jen lost his job at Google. There have been only a few such incidents, and I personally would suggest companies have less to fear from bloggers than the employees who are not blogging. The story of Jeremy Hermanns is a good illustration; Jeremy suffered from the decompression of his Alaska Airlines jet, he and the rest of the passengers and crew landed safely. Jeremy blogged about the incident and posted some pictures. He received a lot of support from people in comments on this blog, accept for one or two people who roundly criticized his posts. Jeremy investigated the posts and allegedly discovered that the comments came from someone with an Alaska Airlines IP address. That’s a good lesson; if a company writes a blogging policy it should cover every one, bloggers and the non-blogging employees.

You cited the Corporate Blogging Survey 2005 in your post; I was the lead author on the study when I used to work at backbone. I think the two examples I gave above would give any company pause before proceeding with a corporate blog. Yet, blogs offer companies the ability to connect with their customers in ways that are not possible with other forms of marketing. You can converse and have a conversation, have the space to reveal more about you, and change the face of a company from faceless to one with personality. In fact personalization was a key success factor I found in another study on blogging success last year. Yes I agree proceed with caution by planning and being prepared but also understand the potential benefits you can gain from blogging that are not possible with other forms of communication.

I contacted the Google blogger Mark Jen, or tried to, for a story I co-wrote with Kristina Dell last summer about employers snooping on their workers. Alas, he was on holiday in Singapore. So I e-mailed him again today for his take on corporate blogging. Here’s his story:

I started at Google in mid-January of 2005; I had left Microsoft and moved down to California to pursue this exciting career opportunity. The day I started my new job was the day I started my new blog. I started the blog for a variety of reasons: to keep in touch with friends and family across the country, to help provide feedback for the Blogger team (which is owned and operated by Google), and to keep a personal log of what I was doing. Although it was public, I didn’t think very many people would be interested in my blog. After all, there are millions of them out there and they seemed to be mostly boring.

I started blogging about moving to San Francisco, working for Google, and various other things that came across my mind. The original blog is still available and can be found here. Looking back on things, here’s what happened:

1. There wasn’t an explicit blogging policy that I could follow so I used my best judgment. I learned that “best judgment” is highly subjective.

2. I didn’t know the power of blogging and how the landscape of news and information was changing. When people found my blog and everyone was talking about it on the blogosphere, I was the last to know. I quickly learned how blogging was changing the spread of information and about the dynamics of the blogosphere.

3. I didn’t realize that Google had a closed, secretive culture. I was used to Microsoft’s culture, where all employees are encouraged to blog and interact directly with the external community. I should have acclimated myself to the culture and understood the implicit guidelines before I started blogging.

Eleven days after I started at Google, I was fired–it was a “perfect storm” of different circumstances that came together at the speed of the Internet 🙂

Mark Jen is now product line manager at technology company Plaxo, and he still keeps a lively blogwith the knowledge of his employer. He adds: “In addition to authoring Plaxo’s blogging policy, I also speak at conferences across the country.”

So Jen landed on his feet. But as his story shows, blogging about your company can be dangerous. Here, a section from our article:

Bloggers, be careful. Workers at Google, Delta Airlines and Microsoft have claimed their blogs got them fired. But with more than 50 million blogs out there, employers like Microsoft train new hires on blog etiquette. Curt Hopkins of Ashland, Ore., says a public radio station cut short a job interview after the boss read his blog; he was later hired by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “build buzz online.” [Penelope] Trunk, who now blogs about workplace issues on Brazen Careerist, says telling young workers not to blog is like telling a baby boomer not to use the phone. “When major corporations try too hard to block the electronic community,” she says, “Generation Y just leaves.”

The Facebook set may not like it, but courts are mostly giving the O.K. to corporate spying. “I haven’t seen one case where an employee has won on a right-of-privacy claim,” says Anthony Oncidi, head of the labor and employment department at law firm Proskauer Rose. Companies can ward off privacy claims if they have informed staff members they’re being monitored, even if only in a single sentence in a rarely read handbook. Even when there is no advance notice, workplace-privacy claims have proved hard to win. Only two states (Connecticut and Delaware) require bosses to tell workers they’re being monitored, but even in those places, there aren’t restrictions on spying.

Businesses argue that their snooping is justified. Not only are they trying to guard trade secrets and intellectual property, but they also must ensure that workers comply with government regulations, such as keeping medical records and credit-card numbers private. And companies are liable for allowing a hostile work environment–say, one filled with porn-filled computer screens–that may lead to lawsuits. “People write very loosely with their e-mails, but they can unintentionally reach thousands, like posters throughout a work site,” says Charles Spearman of diversity-management consultants Tucker Spearman & Associates. “In an investigation, that e-mail can be one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence.” In fact, a ruling in New Jersey last year found an employer had a duty to investigate an employee’s viewing of child pornography and report it to the police.

You’ve been warned.