The Blogger on the Payroll

  |  September 7, 2004   |  Comments

The role of Weblogs in corporate image making came into the spotlight last week when a Friendster employee said she'd been fired for blogging. Companies like Sun and Microsoft have taken a very different approach. Who's right?

The spotlight shone on the role of Weblogs in corporate image-making last week when programmer Joyce Park said Friendster fired her for writing about the company on her "Troutgirl" blog. According to Park, Friendster booted her for three posts she made about the company, sharing her personal views on internal changes that had already been openly discussed in the blogosphere. Upon Parks' firing, a host of bloggers immediately pounced, calling on readers to cancel their Friendster accounts.

Assuming Park's story is true (Friendster declined to comment, saying it doesn't discuss employee matters), the social software firm's move poses a striking contrast to guidelines laid out by several tech companies, among them Microsoft, Sun and Groove Networks. These firms have begun to encourage employee blogs, on the theory that they can give the company a human face.

While these companies' stories are case studies in liberalized PR, Friendster's reaction makes it clear the marketing value of employee blogs is far from codified. So who's right?

Staffers Who Blog

Groove's corporate blogging policy, laid out by founder Ray Ozzie in 2002, appears to be the progenitor of its kind. It warns against disclosure of company information, emphasizes "respectful" discussion of Groove's associates and recommends use of this disclaimer: "The views expressed on this website/weblog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer."

Sun followed suit this year, when Director of Web Technologies Tim Bray posted a similar set of guidelines on his own blog. Bray had watched the way programmers build conversations and community around blogs, and he saw an opportunity for Sun in turning the staff loose in the medium.

"Historically, Sun has been successful when we've been at the center of a community of developers and deployers," he told ClickZ Features. "Our management in general, and [president and COO] Jonathan Schwartz in particular, is focused on strengthening that community. One real good way to do this is to show the world that Sun isn't a big blank monolith; we're a bunch of people doing interesting work. Once we took the decision to unleash the bloggers, then we had to work double-quick to get some policy in place to help them succeed and stay out of trouble."

Bray's guidelines for Sun bloggers are more explicit than those in Groove's document. He calls on bloggers to "be interesting," "write what you know" and "think about consequences"; and he warns that bashing the company or its customers is "not only dangerous, but stupid."

Bray even offers a nightmare scenario for bloggers to chew on: "The worst thing that can happen is that... someone on the customer's side pulls out a print-out of your blog and says [to a sales guy], 'This person at Sun says that product sucks.'" It's quite a lot more guidance than Groove offers.

Bray raves about the results of the experiment, calling it an "unqualified success." But while Groove and Sun are certainly major innovators (and beneficiaries) when it comes to employee Weblogs, Microsoft owes the greatest debt to bloggers. Pioneers Robert Scoble, Lenn Pryor and their coterie of staff bloggers have done for the Redmond software firm what no one else could do; they have humanized it.

Blogging's Biggest Beneficiary

Microsoft's most formal effort, the Channel 9 Web site, launched in April, uses blogging and RSS technologies to increase customer dialogue. It was named after a United Airlines channel that lets passengers listen in on the cockpit during flight. It's been a big hit with employees and customers alike, and logged about 10,000 concurrent users on the day it launched.

But that's just one small part of the company's employee blogging plan, which also includes hosted blogs at its "got dot net" site and uncounted others, both noncommissioned and unsupervised. With more than 1,000 bloggers in its ranks, Microsoft is perhaps the bloggingest employer in the world, and it may be the most hands-off when it comes to forging policy for bloggers. The company doesn't have an explicit blogging policy, though some expect it to develop one soon. According to Mary Jo Foley's Microsoft Watch, in June the company held an internal panel to discuss employee Weblogs. The result? Well, there's still no policy and yet everyone's still blogging.

"As a company full of people passionate about technology, our overall belief is that people will do the right thing," said Adam Sohn, product manager of Microsoft's platform strategy group.

Not long after he took the reins as CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer began to openly discuss changing the company's image. While it's hard to make a direct connection between those remarks and the company's liberal blogging policy, it's harder to imagine what could have done more to humanize the company than blogs like The Scobleizer, written by Microsoft technology evangelist Robert Scoble.

"Here's a company that has at times had a pretty poor image. The thousand people who are blogging are putting a face on that company. You're seeing the humans behind the empire," said Steve Rubel, VP of client services for CooperKatz and writer of a blog about PR.

Rubel draws on the canon of George Lucas to analogize the Microsoft bloggers: "When Darth Vader took off his mask and showed he was a human being, you felt so sorry for the guy. Here's a guy who just got in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's what happened with Microsoft. I think the liberal blogging policy is actually doing wonders for their image."

And it's empowering for those outside the organization as well, according to marketing consultant Ben McConnell, who co-authored the book "Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force".

"It's very liberating, not only for employees, but also for customers," McConnell said. "The biggest challenge for any organization is to create an emotional connection with a customer or a prospect. Being able to interact with an employee of a company through a blog [helps to bridge] that emotional chasm."

In Microsoft's case, McConnell believes blogging is changing the nature of the company.

Friendster's Debacle

That Friendster is providing the dour counterpoint to Microsoft and Sun's liberal blogging policies is ironic, as Park points out, since the company "is all about getting people to reveal information about themselves."

While one might expect Friendster to have a dot-com culture that's accepting of staff bloggers, the company has recently taken steps to introduce more traditional media thinking. In June it hired Scott Sassa, former president of NBC Entertainment, to fill its chief executive post. Friendster said Sassa would strengthen its fledgling ad sales operation and reverse the company's shrinking traffic numbers. (Friendster traffic peaked at 1.8 million hits during October 2003, and by June 2004 it was down to about a million hits a month, according to comScore Networks.)

Sassa's influence has resulted in some interesting campaigns for entertainment brands, most recently for reality show The Apprentice. But many bloggers responding to Park's firing also blame him for bringing a top-down management style that has turned Friendster into a blog-fearing company.

"What seems to be happening is you have this old media management model that has overtaken Friendster -- but maybe it was already there," said McConnell. "I've heard Friendster didn't have the greatest reputation in Silicon Valley even before Sassa came in."

In any case, the results have not been pretty from a PR standpoint. Some influential bloggers -- including Yahoo's Jeremy Zawodny -- have, with bravado, canceled their Friendster accounts and called on their readers to do the same.

"I think they did big damage, because the influencers are now boycotting the site," said Rubel. "If they had just given this person a little bit of warning and talked to her first, they would've been so much better off. Obviously they view employee blogging as a threat, not an opportunity. That's the issue companies really need to look at. Microsoft clearly views it as an opportunity. If you feel confident that they love you, turn 'em loose; they're your champions."

There are, of course, risks inherent in such a liberal policy. "When Microsoft made changes to their employee benefit plan," Rubel said, "the bloggers were all over it, including Scoble. You have to accept that the bloggers are going to be real. Maybe the companies that have less to hide are going to be more comfortable with it."

Policies Going Forward

It's easy for critics to say Friendster should have handled its beef with Park's blog differently. In the end, though, each company will have to decide for itself how to handle the issues raised by employee blogging. Former Friendster programmer Park has faith bloggers will emerge from the debate intact.

"Someday, this will seem as bizarre as firing someone for talking about their job in public," she concluded in her blog. However, she still urged readers to "send mail to your HR department ASAP, asking for clear guidelines to be issued regarding all employee communications on the Interweb."

This appears to be the only point on which everyone can agree. Rubel, McConnel and Bray all emphasized the importance of having guidelines in place to govern the blogging of the company by the company. If anything, such policies benefit companies more than they do bloggers.

"I think a policy is absolutely necessary," said Sun's Bray. "There are a lot of rules that apply to public companies that engineers and marketing people can't be expected to know... The most obvious is the regulatory framework that applies to release of financial data, but there's lots more ways for an innocent and well-intentioned person to get in trouble."

Producing blogging guidelines is easier said than done, as striking a casual tone and protecting the company's interests are inevitably dueling interests. Bray's blogging guidelines reflect that tension, wavering between a "just do it" attitude and measured warnings of the legal and financial consequences of ill-thought-out commentary.

"Obviously there's going to be some tension between the desire to reduce the risk, and the desire to unleash your employees' creativity," Bray said. "My personal recommendation is to get an activist and impatient COO on the case flogging people to just get it done."

In the end, he says, it's worth it. Bray says Sun's staff blogs not only put a face on the company, but also build its knowledge capital.

"The obvious benefit is that we get our story out in front of the world, disintermediated," he said. "The less-obvious benefit is that blogs actually turn out to be an excellent vehicle for listening, not just talking. If some smart person out there has a good idea that we should look at, or sees something stupid we're doing, there's no obvious way to 'tell Sun.' But if there's someone whose name the person knows because they're blogging about the work they're doing in that area, they'll fire off an email in a moment."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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