Who’s afraid of the big, bad blog?

To blog, or not to blog? That is the question vexing marketing managers and public relations executives as they struggle to get to grips with the soaring popularity of weblogs, the online journals that are redefining the way millions of people around the world get news and entertainment on the internet.

Weblogs, or blogs, are the periodic rants and raves of millions of hobbyists and armchair pundits, who take advantage of easy-to-use publishing platforms to opine on everything from politics, to pornography, to the latest computer gadgets, and everything in between.

Blogging’s conversational style and anti-establishment ethos have attracted a growing and loyal readership. Technorati, the internet search company, says the size of the known “blogosphere” is about 20m blogs and counting. The total number of weblogs tracked by Technorati has doubled every five months for the past three years.

For companies, the rising importance of blogging as a communications tool presents a difficult dilemma.

On the one hand, avoiding the blogosphere altogether seems a bad idea. Kryptonite, a maker of bicycle locks, was caught flat-footed last year when an enterprising blogger discovered he could pick his expensive Kryptonite lock with the end of a plastic pen. Kryptonite’s lack of a significant blog of its own meant it had no efficient way to respond to the original blogger’s claim. A video exposing the lock’s vulnerability soon spread into the mainstream media.

On the other hand, companies that wish to engage with the blogosphere face an intractable credibility problem. Bloggers are an anti-establishment lot, and messages from big business are automatically suspect. In bloggers’ eyes, most companies’ attempts to insert themselves into online conversation come across as ham-fisted at best, and disingenuous at worst.

Business blogging recently took centre stage at BlogOn, a blogging conference in New York, where media consultancy Guidewire Group released a survey that found that big and small companies are rushing to adopt blogging as a business tool.

Now some companies have begun to find ways to interact successfully with the blogosphere. The key to success, it turns out, is to take the company out of the picture and let the employees do the blogging.

At Microsoft, Robert Scoble, a computer specialist and “technical evangelist”, maintains a popular blog called “Scobleizer”, where he frequently promotes Microsoft products.

But Mr Scoble is no mere corporate shill. He is also a frequent critic. When one fellow Microsoft blogger asked why the company did not do more to promote SmartPhone – its e-mail- and music-enabled mobile phone – as a competitor to Apple’s iPod personal music player, Mr Scoble was unequivocal.

“I love my SmartPhone as much as the next guy,” he wrote, “but you can’t compare that to the iPod.

“Here’s why: my son will not consider buying one. A cell phone has a monthly service charge. An iPod doesn’t. Also, an iPod is ‘cool’ but a SmartPhone isn’t.”

Such statements are likely to elicit cringes from Microsoft’s PR managers. But experts say this “warts-and-all” approach is the key to becoming a credible participant in the blogosphere.

“Robert Scoble is the person who actually managed to put a human face on Microsoft,” says Suw Charman, a consultant who advises companies about blogging. “He’s not monitored by a department, he’s not monitored by legal.”

Giving employees free rein to criticise their company’s own products or to praise competitors is a big departure from the carefully constructed messages of traditional brand management. But Ms Charman says companies that insist on carrying the old ways of doing things into the blogosphere are heading for trouble.

“Business is used to inhabiting a broadcast environment, and that is not what the blogosphere is about,” she says. “Companies need to learn that they can’t control the message any more, then they have to learn that that’s good.”

Mark Jen, a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, has first-hand experience with the traditional model of message control. He became something of an accidental internet celebrity earlier this year when he was fired just weeks into his new job at Google for writing about the internal workings of the internet search company on his personal blog.

Mr Jen later found a job as a product manager at Plaxo, which makes contact-management software. One of his first tasks was to help draft Plaxo’s employee blogging policy.

Mr Jen argues that, used properly, blogging can help a company reach out to its customers in powerful ways. “When you go to an individual’s blog and read the content . . . people will actually take the perception they get from an individual and project it on to the company they work for,” he says. “That perception is often stronger than the message that the company is trying to [get across].”

Such an approach requires that companies place an immense amount of trust in employees to act as capable ambassadors. Mr Jen says that companies may have little choice. “You could say, ‘I’m not going to allow my employees to blog,’ but any one of your employees can still go out and start a blog anonymously,” Mr Jen says.

When IBM decided to encourage its 320,000 employees to start blogging, it asked them to develop a set of simple guidelines themselves. The result was 11 core principles, which IBM published in March (see below).

James Snell, an IBM blogger and software developer, described the process: “The final draft was polished up a bit by the corporate communications and legal folks, [but] the bullet points were written by IBM’s bloggers based on what they felt was important both for them and for the company. In other words, this isn’t a policy that IBM is imposing upon us, it is a commitment that we have all entered into together.”

IBM’s guidelines read more like a list of best practices than a rulebook. Along with the obvious advice about not sharing company secrets or commenting on sensitive financial information, they encourage IBM bloggers to use their real names, state their position in the company and stick to writing about what they know.

Employee blogs have the potential to shine a spotlight on a company’s inner workings, and managers are right to be cautious. Public relations consultants wrestling with the problem say blogging is certainly not a good idea for everyone. IBM says it was careful to weigh the risks of increased transparency before it decided to embrace the trend.

“Businesses and organisations of all sorts are going to need to begin rethinking what official channels of communication are,” says IBM. “They are going to have to rethink what the official release of information means. There will probably be missteps along the way, but we see the risks and the learning curve as being worth it.”

IBM likens its experiment in blogging to its efforts in the mid-1990s to encourage employees to surf the internet. At the time, many of the benefits were unclear, but eventually, as the internet changed, IBM says that having employees with their ears close to the ground allowed the company to change along with it.

IBM’S HOME-GROWN BLOG GUIDELINES

When IBM decided to encourage its 329,000 employees to start blogging, it asked employees to develop a set of guidelines. The core principles – written by IBM bloggers over a period of 10 days using a collaborative internal web page or “wiki” – drew on the employees’ own experiences and best practices at other companies.

IBM’s core blogging principles:

■ Know and follow IBM’s internal conduct guidelines.

■ Be mindful of what you write. You are personally responsible for your posts.

■ Use your real name and state your role at IBM when writing about IBM-related matters.

■ Use a disclaimer stating that your postings do not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

■ Respect copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws.

■ Do not leak confidential or other proprietary information.

■ Do not talk about clients, partners or suppliers without their approval.

■ Respect your audience. Do not use profanity or ethnic slurs.

■ Find out who else is blogging about your topic and cite them.

■ Do not pick fights, and correct your own mistakes.

■ Try to add value. Provide worthwhile information and perspective.

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