COMMUNICATION: Online and opinionated – Why corporate heavyweights are tuning in to blogging

Corporate blogging, or clogging as some people playfully call it, is big news in the United States and the United Kingdom. Born in the IT community, blogging – or frequent online posting of news and views intended for public consumption – has filtered down to citizen journalists and personal bloggers. In the past three or four years corporate America has started catching up.
Take Sun Microsystems CEO and president Jonathan Schwartz, for example. As one of the early adopters (http://blogs.sun.com/jonathan/) Schwartz is so taken with the notion of transparent company comment that he urges his staff to set up their own blogs. Hundreds of them have taken up the opportunity, openly commenting on whatever they do, or don’t, like about the company.
Think that corporate blogging is just for tech-nerds? How about Bob Lutz, who as vice-chairman of General Motors has been blogging since the start of 2005 (http://fastlane.gmblogs.com). He’s now one of the most well known corporate bloggers in the US, comfortably chatting away about diesel power, battery technology and concept cars.
Even corporate stalwarts such as Bill Marriott of Marriott Hotels started blogging earlier this year. His genteel blog (http://www.blogs.marriott.com/) attracts respectful comments from customers who are, by and large, thrilled with the Marriott service and who address him as ‘Mr Marriott’.
Over on this side of the planet, there’s far less corporate take-up. Notable exceptions tend to be in the IT space. Those outside the technology sphere are both tech-savvy and comfortable pioneering their opinions in web space.
Rod Drury, CEO of online business accounting software company Xero, sees his blog http://www.drury.net.nz/ as “living CV”. It’s high-tech elevator speech, rapidly communicating his prowess in relevant areas to customers and the wider world. It enables him to subtly push his background, skills and knowledge without encroaching on meeting time.
Jim Donovan, CEO of New Zealand-based IT services business Fronde (formerly Synergy IT), is another more recent arrival into the Kiwi blogging space http://jimdonovan.net.nz/ Then there’s Harcourts International managing director Mike Green who launched his own blog http://mikesrant.wordpress.com/ in August this year, claiming it’s not corporate blog at all, but his personal thoughts on things real estate and beyond.
There’s much talk that, behind the scenes, many local communications managers are weighing up the pros and cons of getting their top brass online and opinionated.
Thom James, online PR director at Bullet PR, says there is “some” enthusiasm for corporate blogging in the New Zealand marketplace. This keenness is, however, tempered by cautiousness and trepidation. “It is quite big step,” notes James, “and companies are bit cautious about revealing too much.”
Those who have dipped toe in the water have often changed tack. Ed Saul, senior partner at New Zealand insurance company Pinnacle Life, says his company earlier this year first started using blog as promotional tool. He has since cottoned on to the blog’s more powerful role as vehicle for communication and dialogue.
Saul’s efforts are already paying off. When he learnt that company in the UK was offering cheaper life insurance for vegetarians he weighed into the debate on his blog. His comments were picked up by local mainstream media who ran the story, giving him additional exposure and kudos. It’s not the only time he’s been able to pull off such stunt.
Saul’s ability to bounce his views into broader audience is the result of many hours spent scanning international news for relevant topics on which he can comment on his blog.
His regular posts on his blog are short – he reckons one to four paragraphs is the optimum length – but he insists they are highly pertinent to his industry.
The importance of relevance is lesson that CEO bloggers often learn the hard way. People, says James, come to site for specific purpose. So don’t confuse them with extraneous stuff.
Well aware that he’s working in very narrow field of interest, Saul spends most of his time searching for relevant source material on which he can comment.
“Life insurance,” he says, “is not like technology blog where the amount of source material or the things you can say are endless. We don’t just want to be blogging rubbish that nobody wants to read just to hear our own voice. We want our blog to be interesting, we want it to be topical, focused on things to do with life insurance and we want it to be educational.”
Saul spends about an hour day, seven days week, scanning for news and writing his blog. His business partner and blog co-host Steve de Jong, spends about half that amount of time again. It’s no small commitment for top managers of small company.
Xero’s Drury describes blogging as an easy process but acknowledges that it’s more about getting the mindset right than fixating on the technology.
Blogging, he says, is good way to flaunt corporate personality. For smaller companies it’s “no brainer”. For larger companies it’s “more of challenge” as the subject matter can be very broad. Instead, he suggests, companies may want to consider setting up blogs for their smaller inhouse divisions so they can communicate with more targeted groups of stakeholders.
“The interesting thing about blogging is that everybody has voice,” says Drury. “The most opinionated people are the most motivated to get in there.”
Translate that to mean there’s always risk
that your blog will be hijacked by competitors commenting and using it as sales tool.
“Expect to take few shots to the body,” says Drury. “You need to be fairly thick skinned.”
Drury’s blog experienced “lots of nasty stuff” around the time of the Xero IPO. Drury, who moderates his blog himself, responded by allowing all but the most personally insulting posts to go up. “I’ve no problem with people putting counter view up there,” he says. “Open and heated debate is fine but I draw the line at personal insult and blatant hijacking.”
Above all else, any CEO who starts blogging had better keep going. In May this year, General Motors’ Bob Lutz drew flak by two week silence on his blog. GM management felt the blog had backfired, readers speculated. Lutz was bored with blogging. The GM blog was failure. Lutz had to swing into damage control.
It is critical to keep up the frequency of postings.
As Ed Saul says: Blogging is not something you can do in dribs and drabs. “You can’t do it intensively for few weeks and then have rest. It has to be ongoing and consistent. So if you plan to start you need to know that you can commit that kind of time to it.
“It’s bit like slide. Once you get going you really can’t stop.”


READY, STEADY, BLOG
•Right from the start, be very clear about what you want to achieve with the blog. Is it to evangelise the CEO or are there wider organisational goals such as raising the company profile?
•Don’t get too coy with the URL. Make the blog easy to find.
•Work out key words and topics for your audience then use them in the body of the text as often as possible. This will improve your chances of being pulled up by Google search.
•If you must tie the blog into the company’s corporate look and feel, do it with very light touch. Consider using company colours. Don’t go overboard with the corporate look. This is not your traditional full-frontal company branding exercise.
•Keep the layout simple. Think no frills. Many blogs are just page of text. You may want to include navigation column on one side which links through to topic categories and an archive. Maybe include an author’s bio. Go for the stripped back look. Many corporate bloggers use WordPress template (http://wordpress.org/) to help them with their layout.
•Don’t preach.
•Don’t regurgitate marketing speak.
•Don’t be

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