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section heading icon     brands, bridges and bushfires

This page looks at corporate blogging as a mechanism for building (or burning) brands and engaging with an organisation's stakeholders.

It covers -

section marker     introduction

As noted earlier in this profile, some enthusiasts have characterised corporate blogging as a way to engage with an organisation's clients rather than its staff and contractors.

Blogging directed outside the organisation aims at building a bridge between the organisation and its customers or other stakeholders. Such blogs have variously reported on a particular enterprise's activities or sought to engage the interest of consumers in a specific brand or product.

There are few accepted benchmarks for assessing the success of uptake by organisations. It is unclear whether corporate blogging delivers better results than traditional mechanisms for sharing information or, more broadly, for building a positive corporate culture.

section marker     blogging as an organisation's public face?

What of blogging that is meant to embody a brand or engage with an organisation's constituents? An indispensable tool? Necessarily honest?

Sun Microsystems president Jonathan Schwartz claimed in 2004 that for executives

it'll be no more mandatory that they have blogs than that they have a phone and an e-mail account. If they don't, they're going to look foolish.

Steve Hayden of Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising group that just happens to create blogs for its corporate clients, quipped that

If you fudge or lie on a blog, you are biting the karmic weenie. The negative reaction will be so great that, whatever your intention was, it will be overwhelmed and crushed like a bug. You're fighting with very powerful forces because it's real people's opinions.

Claims about consumer cravings for 'authenticity' and - more credibly - wariness about corporate statements mean that suggestions for blogging as the public face of an organisation should be treated with care, particularly if the audience for such a blog does not comprise a client group or is composed of the converted.

The history of advertising suggests that

  • few 'messages from the sponsor' are engaging
  • consumers are often adept at deconstructing a text
  • consumers may be suspicious about advertorial or infotainment texts
  • regulatory environments inhibit both content and expression that would encourage a return visit by readers facing a surfeit of online content

As consultants to some publishing projects we have noted that there is nothing like editing by a corporate lawyer to wither every fruit on the vine ... and that such editing is often highly desirable, with Australian courts for example recognising that personal defamation and corporate 'injurious falsehood' occur on blogs. argued that

blogging is perfect for small businesses - a cheap and easy way to communicate directly with customers, partners, and clients, craft a strong, outspoken online personality, and escape the doldrums of static homepages.

It is perhaps more viable as a mechanism to escape consumer disquiet with more traditional online marketing - newsletters and misdirected email blizzards - that only few years earlier were being just as enthusiastically promoted by many of the same pundits.

Most promo blogs are published by small (or nano- ) businesses, rather than major enterprises. They are particularly associated with the 'creative industries' such as advertising, photography and other graphics services, and with the digerati.

In practice the blogging that offers insights into an organisation's culture and performance has instead been writing by bloggers who see themselves as individuals rather than employees, albeit done on company time, using corporate facilities and centred on 'water cooler conversations'. That has posed questions about ownership, supervision and surveillance.

As cases in North America, South Africa and Europe indicate, some enterprises have sought to crimp comment made by employees on a personal basis - an issue that we have explored in discussing online free speech. Those efforts reflect community and judicial acceptance of limits on employee statements in newspapers, private newsletters and other fora. They are based on assumptions that staff have some obligations to the particular enterprise, whether the blog bears that organisation's logo or not.

section marker     a day in the life of product x

Most brand or corporate blogs have been top-down, presenting a story but not featuring feedback by the consumer.

In that they are akin to advertorial tales in traditional womens' magazines, in which Janet Smith (or Betty Crocker) solved the problems of the world with the help of brand X cake mix or toilet cleanser. Such tales did not feature reader complaints about the product's effectiveness, expressions of concerns about the cost of 'better living through modern chemicals' or questions about corporate social responsibility.

They are also akin to print and electronic diaries or 'invitations' into the lives of executive wives (eg the spouse of the Prime Minister, President or Governor-General) ... and often as artfully or ineptly scripted.

Patrick notes that

Some have asked whether there's a role for customers, and there probably is a role for both intranet and extranet blogging. But I think there's a danger that companies might try to invoke some rules to try to edit them, overregulate, overcontrol or sanitize them. Imagine how unread something would be, for example, if Bill Jones, the vice president of consumer safety, writes a blog on something that admonishes people to be careful about something. First, it's corporate-speak more often than not, and second, everybody knows Bill Jones can't find the on-off button on his laptop, so you know there's no way he actually wrote the stuff himself. Blogs, to be credible, must not be overcontrolled, public relations documents. They're best if they're from the grassroots of the organization.

The New York Times, noting the emergence of corporate blogs from Nike, GM and other marketers, proclaimed in December 2004 that

From a marketing perspective, blogs make perfect sense. They are cheap to produce, immersive and interactive. It's easy to measure their readership and response rates. For small companies, blogs are a quick and dirty promotional tool that cuts out the middleman; for big companies, blogs are a tool of humanization -- an informal, chatty, down-to-earth voice amid the din of bland corporate-speak

So-called 'fake blogs' (flogs) appear - like most advertising - to have had indifferent success. McDonald's reportedly created a flog to accompany Super Bowl advertising about 'discovery' of a Lincoln-shaped french fry.

section marker     monitoring the blogosphere

Monitoring the blogosphere - on a comprehensive basis through a newsfeed service or by recurrent examination of specific blogs (eg that of a corporate critic) - is becoming standard practice for organisations and individuals such as politicians and media celebrities.

Monitoring has been hyped as a new business opportunity - tell the suits what the people behind the keyboards are saying about them. However, it is an extension of traditional reputation monitoring and management services that has grown from collation of newspaper clippings, tracking broadcast coverage and conducting in-person/phone surveys to systematic or ad hoc examination of newsgroups.

The public relations industry has unsurprisingly heard claims that it has both the capacity and need to track blogging. UK Hill and Knowlton executive Joel Cere reportedly commented that checking postings is a "prerequisite in crisis preparedness". There is disagreement about the intensity of such checking and the day to day impact of blogging. Bruce Marshall for example quipped that

The PR who ignores blogs is even a bigger fool than the those who think that blogs change everything.

One client lamented to us that blogs - like online fora - are qualitatively different because they are likely to be archived and indexed, thus accessible through Google or another search engine in perpetuity or through specialist sites such as the 'Fortune 500 Blogging Wiki' (F5BW) that covers blogs maintained by employees of major US corporations.

Others attract attention through an inept response. In 2008 for example US retailer Target dismissed legitimate criticism of sexist asvertising, explaining

Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets ...
This practice is in place to allow us to focus on publications that reach our core guest.

The "core guest" is anyone who shops at Target.

Elsewhere in this site we have pointed to discussion of monitoring principles in works such as Gerry Griffin's Reputation Management (Oxford: Capstone 2002), Steven Howard's Corporate Image Management - A Marketing Discipline for the 21st Century (London: Butterworth) and Marion Pinsdorf's Communicating When Your Company Is Under Siege: Surviving Public Crisis (New York: Free Press 1986).

section marker     media management

Should organisations and individuals bother with blogs? Is the blogosphere sufficiently influential? Is investment in 'managing' power bloggers (and those whose efforts reach a smaller audience) worthwhile? What is the best way to tame or merely feed the beast?

Normalisation of blogging was evident in release during 2005 of a range of promotional studies by advertising and reputation management agencies arguing that brand owners should engage with the blogosphere. The UK Blog Relations PR Survey for example reported that 25% of respondents in US, European and Asian PR agencies believed that influential blogs could affect a company's standing. Some commented that "negative blogs could spark a full-blown PR crisis", a conclusion however that is arguably not much different from assessment of outcomes from negative coverage by a syndicated columnist or television journalist.

Hugh Fraser commented that

Companies find it very difficult to get to terms with blogs and to get to grips with which ones are influential and what is the right way to proceed. Public relations companies have long experience in dealing with appeasing journalists, but with bloggers they're often not sure how to react.

65% of the 'influentials' or power bloggers featured in the 2005 Edelman Public Relations Engaging the Blogosphere survey noted on the preceding page reported that the best way for a business to contact them about an error is by email. 30% preferred the enterprise to post a comment on the blog.

Supposedly few would not bother to correct errors in blogging: 39% would use a strikethrough and correction, 25% would create a new post with new information, 6% would remove the post without a corrective statement and 24% would leave the error 'as is' but add a correction. 48% were never contacted by companies (or their PR representatives). 31% were contacted less than once a week, 10% about once a week and 5% daily.

Gresham PR chief Neil Boom has questioned whether organisations should actively engage with bloggers -

Why are blogs any different from any other form of company pressure or mad crank? If companies waste their time trying to deal with bloggers they will tie themselves up in knots

In practice - as with traditional print and electronic media - there are no simple one-size-fits-all solutions. Some cranks are best ignored; others - particularly those with a megaphone and perceived authority - might need to be countered or even chilled.

An official posting on a critic's site (or an unauthorised posting by an enthusiastic employee/associate) might for example backfire by stroking the blogger's ego, providing the critic with the oxygen of publicity or legitimating the initial statement ("there must be something in it if they think it's worth rebuttal"). The figures noted above that some bloggers will be positive in addressing incorrect facts; responses are more uncertain where there are disagreements about interpretation and significance. Some statements may result in a stiff legal letter to the blogger or the blogger's host.

section marker     fear, loathing and hyperbole

The reach-for-a-lawyer approach is evident in Daniel Lyons's overheated 2005 Attack of the Blogs article for Forbes. It echoes past laments about the innate nastiness of the net in claiming that

Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective. Their potent allies in this pursuit include Google and Yahoo.

... they are the ultimate vehicle for brand-bashing, personal attacks, political extremism and smear campaigns. It's not easy to fight back: Often a bashing victim can't even figure out who his attacker is. No target is too mighty, or too obscure, for this new and virulent strain of oratory. ... "Bloggers are more of a threat than people realize, and they are only going to get more toxic. This is the new reality," says Peter Blackshaw, chief marketing officer at Intelliseek, a Cincinnati firm that sifts through millions of blogs to provide watch-your-back service to 75 clients, including Procter & Gamble and Ford. "The potential for brand damage is really high,"says Frank Shaw, executive vice president at Microsoft's main public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom. "There is bad information out there in the blog space, and you have only hours to get ahead of it and cut it off, especially if it's juicy."

Lyons went on to comment that

You can't stop bloggers from launching an all out attack on you or your business if that's what they decide to do - but you can defend yourself.

Aggressive adoption of those defences strikes us as problematical. His exhortations include -

Monitor the Blogosphere. Put your own people on this or hire a watchdog (Cymfony, Intelliseek or Biz360, among others). Spot blog smears early, before they can spread, and stamp them out by publishing the truth.

Start your own Blog. Hire a blogger to do a company blog or encourage your employees to write their own, adding your voice to the mix.

Build a Blog Swarm. Reach out to key bloggers and get them on your side. Lavish them with attention. Or cash ....

Bash Back. If you get attacked, dig up dirt on your assailant and feed it to sympathetic bloggers. Discredit him.

Attack the host. Find some copyrighted text that a blogger has lifted from your Web site and threaten to sue his Internet service provider under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That may prompt the ISP to shut him down. Or threaten to drag the host into a defamation suit against the blogger. The host isn't liable but may skip the hassle and cut off the blogger's access anyway. Also: Subpoena the host company, demanding the blogger's name or Internet address.

Sue the Blogger. If all else fails, you can sue your attacker for defamation, at the risk of getting mocked. You will have to chase him for years to collect damages. Settle for a court order forcing him to take down his material.

Presumably hiring a contract killer, leaving a horse's head in the blogger's bed or kidnapping the blogger's loved ones is too much even for Forbes.

The chief legal officer at Sun Microsystems more pragmatically commented in 2006 that

When Jonathan Schwartz, our president, first said, 'I'm gonna start a blog,' there were many people on his staff who weren't sure what a blog was. And then there was a lot of discussion about what does that mean, what are the concerns, how do we create a structure that assures that things like confidentiality and financial results and other things are not disclosed and so it is an internal process. What we came up with is you have to register to blog as an employee at Sun. Then once you register, before you can start blogging, there is a certification and a policy on blogging that an employee has to read and agree to.

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version of January 2008
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics