Blogger Beware

Blogs let businessmen like Mark Cuban share their thoughts with the masses. Read this before you join the crowd.

Mark cuban blogs. Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman, blogs. Jonathan Schwartz, Sun Microsystems’ new CEO, blogs. Is everybody blogging? Should you?

If you hadn’t heard, the word “blog” was invented in 1997 as a shortening of “web log,” meaning sequential comments one would write and post on a site anyone could log onto. BusinessWeek calls them “the most explosive outbreak in the information world since the Internet itself.” No one has an exact count as to how many are out there. Estimates range from BusinessWeek’s of 9 billion to as high as 250 million from Jeff Stewart, CEO of Monitor, a software company specializing in blog-tracking.

Blogs offer senior executives opportunities but pose real risks. They are changing communication at breathtaking speeds. You need to know about them, and you need to know now.

Recognizing how electronic communication has changed what audiences expect, many companies are using internal television or video-on-demand as a way to communicate. This form of communication is limited by cost, hassle, and the fact that few senior executives are capable of subbing for Brit Hume or Charlie Gibson. Blogging is conversational, like television, so executives can use the more familiar written word to communicate with audiences influenced by television and video games. Like television, blog comments are really person-to-person communication.

In Mark Cuban’s case, that’s personality-to-person. With no shareholders to offend and in a field that feeds on controversy and machismo, Cuban recognized early the value of a blog, both to promote the Mavericks and to magnify his own image. He readily shares his thoughts on basketball—especially on basketball referees—but his comments range from criticizing shareholders oblivious to how a company was run—telling them, “You is a corporate ho”—to criticizing the FCC, explaining “click fraud,” reviewing software, and covering dozens of other topics. No matter the subject at hand, he almost always says something provocative.

North Texas CEOs, especially those expecting proper punctuation and grammar, will probably feel more comfortable with something closer to GM’s “FastLane blog.” Led by vice chairman Bob Lutz, the vast majority of postings are written by executives and posted with minimal editing by Lutz, whose own comments include travelogues of his visits to plants around the world. Both Lutz and Cuban avoid the appearance of being a PR vehicle. Lutz posts negative comments he receives, and Cuban often leaves his “comments” sections on. Readers can, and do, pounce on the opportunity to chime in.

Back to the question, “Should CEOs blog?” The better question is, “Should CEOs be blog-literate?” and the clear answer to that is, “Yes.”  First of all, your customers, vendors, employees, and investors are blogging. If you don’t know how to try to track what’s going on, you risk being blindsided by a potential crisis. Blog-tracking is fast becoming part of risk or reputation management. An allegation on a blog travels at the speed of light. A 2005 comment by CNN’s top executive, Eason Jordan, at what was supposed to be an off-the-record session in Davos, Switzerland, cost him his job. Journalists who reviewed the transcript disagreed about what he actually said or meant.

The point for the C-suite resident is not what Jordan said but how a selected quote moved around the world. Jordan either chose to ignore it or didn’t know what to do. Companies will face their own version of this, and a CEO better understand the risk. You will be called to settle the heated argument when your communication director is saying, “We need to respond immediately,” while the General Counsel is saying, “What are you talking about? We need to have an internal investigation first.” Side with communications.

And just because you aren’t blogging doesn’t mean your employees aren’t. In May of this year, HR Magazine reported that 10 million U.S. workers have some sort of Web log, and it’s hard to blog about your life without references to what’s going on at work. Earlier this year, Google fired a young programmer who recorded his comments about Google’s health plans and attitude that everyone should work well past dinner. The tech world linked to him. Google offered the quaint explanation that they expect employees to use common sense. If your General Counsel and HR director haven’t already proposed a policy, tell them to get one ready on employee blogging. (I’m presuming you already have one on the subject of e-mail.)

Companies probably can’t do anything about employees blogging on their own time with their home computers unless the employee reveals proprietary information. But what’s proprietary? And libel and fairness laws don’t yet exist for the blogosphere.

You’re also going to encounter words like “Moblogging,” again probably from your HR, communication, or sales staff. These mini-blogs to hand-held devices like cell phones offer real opportunity to communicate with employees like delivery personnel, nurses, and on-the-road staff who don’t have access to a computer and who, unlike professional staff, are much less likely to log on from home to catch up on what’s happening at the office.

And, sooner rather than later, you’re going to have to decide a debate whether to buy “buzz” from a blogger—anonymously posted, glowing comments about you or nasty comments about a competitor. Your legal staff will be opposed, but the advertising people will want to do it. Your communications staff should be with Legal on this. Paid-for or undercover comments will eventually become public, therefore ruining the credibility for your other communications. The Los Angeles Times just suspended the blog of one of its own, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters when it was discovered that he posted comments on the paper’s Web site and on other sites using a fake name. The reporter was exposed by another blog. This recent incident generated much soul-searching among reporters, prompting John Robinson, editor of a Greensboro, N.C. paper, who also blogs, to write, “You really expect your staff to maintain their integrity.” Along with their common sense.

For the CEO or C-suite residents considering blogging, remember these caveats:
›› Once you start, it’s very hard to stop.
›› If you blog, write short, interesting, conversational things.
›› Don’t just relay good news. Be “real.”
›› Anything internal can become external, as Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, found out with his “internal” blog.

Back to our question at the start: is everybody blogging? No, although it sometimes seems like it. Should you be blogging? Only with great care. What you should be, is aware of blogs’ power. You don’t want to end up like William H. Swanson, CEO of Raytheon and author of Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management, a book of tips that Raytheon promoted on its Web site. Turns out, the homey comments came mostly from a 1944 book, The Unwritten Laws of Engineering plus other folksy philosophers like Don Rumsfeld. Swanson apparently missed the written rules against reprinting without permission and the unwritten ones about common sense and integrity. Swanson was outed by, of course, a blog.

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