My first column for D CEO in July 2006 asked “Should CEOs blog?” At that time, Mark Cuban was already blogging, as were Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun Microsystems, and Bob Lutz at General Motors.

Our answer then was, “Probably not, but you need to be blog literate.” Today, it’s “Maybe, and you need a company blog.”

A 2008 research study found that 81 companies listed on the Fortune 500 list had true blogs—those that allow readers to post comments. Blog search engine Technorati estimates that out of the 112.5 million blogs on the Web, at least 5,000 are corporate.

Once your company has joined these ranks, there are some important points to remember.

1. Blogs Let You Talk Straight to Your Audience.

Mary Kay Inc. launched its blog last spring as a way to find out what’s in the minds “and hearts” of their 2 million independent beauty consultants and their customers. It’s a way for all the executives to listen as well as contribute.

Rhonda Shasteen, chief marketing officer for Mary Kay, says it’s important for the company to participate in the conversations that women are increasingly having online. The blog features opinions, product research, and whatever’s new.

Shasteen will also frequently pass on life lessons she learned from her personal relationship with company founder Mary Kay Ash. She plans to invite other executives to contribute as well.

2. Your Customers Will Talk Back. Don’t Panic.

Be prepared for criticism in real time. Whole Foods’ blogging CEO John Mackey wrote an op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal opposing the Obama Administration’s health care plan as a “massive new health care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits.” A sizeable portion of the grocer’s liberal customer base was outraged, posting more than 4,000 comments on Mackey’s blog and 22,000 more posts on the company’s web forum.

The company tried to say that he had written the op-ed as a private citizen, but he was identified as the CEO of the company in the newspaper, and he had used the company’s health care plan and Canadian employees as examples.

If something like this blows up, don’t clam up. Mackey should have continued the conversation about what a company can and can’t provide employees. 

3. Do It Yourself.

Frederick “Fritz” Henderson, the new CEO at GM, has started blogging as part of his campaign to build public trust. It’s working because blogging is just one segment of an overall communication campaign and because he’s writing and responding himself. If you’re going to blog, you need to handle it yourself. (You can get help. Bill Marriott dictates comments which someone types up and posts for him.)

Be warned: Blogging takes a great deal of time, and it’s hard to stop. When Oracle bought Sun Microsystems last spring, Schwartz’s blog disappeared for a month, causing all kinds of speculation.

There’s no need for a personal blog. The CEO can add occasional comments to the official company blog. Southwest’s “Nuts about Southwest” blog features posts on a wide range of topics—like the company’s failed attempt to acquire Frontier Airlines—from every level of the business. Captains, customers, and top executives, including CEO Gary Kelly, contribute.

4. Consistency is important.

Be prepared for screw-ups. While Henderson was becoming the face of GM, Bob Lutz blogged that they were considering saving the Pontiac G8 sedan. When the consideration turned out to be untrue, Lutz had to issue a retraction.

Paradoxically, this has added to the company’s credibility. It’s clear that they are speaking openly, and honest disagreements or misunderstandings will arise.
One final piece of advice for CEO bloggers: make it fun. If there’s one thing you don’t want your blog to be, it’s boring.

While it is often said, “Never make predictions, especially about the future,” this prediction is safe: we’ll be writing about this again.

Spaeth is one of the country’s leading communications strategists. After serving as President Ronald Reagan’s director of media relations, she founded Dallas-based Spaeth Communications in 1987. She is also a lecturer at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business.

4 Corporate Blogs That Do It Right

Southwest Airlines
Nuts About Southwest, www.blogsouthwest.com
“Southwest Airlines partnered with the El Paso Zoo to bring three Horned Lizards from Austin to El Paso. ... It seems appropriate that the ‘LUV’ Airlines would be responsible for bringing ‘Horny’ toads to El Paso.”

Ebby Halliday Realtors
Ebby Blog, www.blog.ebby.com
“Ebby recently [attended] the mandatory 15-hour continuing education required by the Texas Real Estate Commission to maintain her license. That’s right, 98-year-old Ebby Halliday personally attended class ... and she says she learned a lot.”

AT&T
Calm, Cool, & Connected, www.calmcoolconnected.com
“I needed to make a list of things I needed to get done within the 48 hours I was home. ... I didn’t feel like getting up for a pen. Then it dawned on me—I had my phone on me! So, I pulled up my notes and made the list right there. The best part? I was able to also e-mail them to myself.”

Frito-Lay
Snack Chat, www.snacks.com
“Meet Andrea Edwards, Certified Culinary Scientist. … Young adults love Doritos, and they’re continually looking for us to provide them with new taste experiences. ‘My job requires that I stay on top of evolving food trends and identify flavor innovations for Doritos,’ Andrea [says].” —Jason Heid