The Future of Corporate Blogs

I think corporate blogging will only continue to expand as more PR departments look to social media to increase their presence in the Information Age. “With ever-increasing connectivity among people on the ubiquitous World Wide Web, virtual communities are becoming as important, and maybe even more relevant, than the real world in which the corporations operate.” (Raghavan, 2006). As cited in an Aug. 28, 2009 USA Today article by Jon Swartz, Forrester Research found that 95 percent of business decisions makers use social networks and 53 percent of more than 300 marketers plan to increase spending on social-media marketing. In a 2008 study, Wright and Hinson found that 60 percent of PR practitioners think blogs have enhanced PR. According to Technorati, the overall number of blogs doubled from 30 million in 2003 to 60 million in 2006 (Wright & Hinson, 2008).

The success of corporate blogs depends, in my opinion, on how much reign the writers are given to create “real” content that isn’t filtered. Otherwise, blogs aren’t that different from the PR tools already available and they won’t be inviting conversation. The Internet trend has been towards social networking sites and consumer-generated media, and I think corporate blogs will be successful because they allow readers to contribute to the discussion through comments. They are low-cost, fast and have audiovisual capabilities, and that can only be a good thing.

In their 2006 book Blogging for Business, Shel Holtz and Ted Demopoulos dedicate an entire chapter to the future of corporate blogs. In Internet years, 2006 is ancient history, but some of their statements hold even truer in 2010 as corporate blogs have become even more popular. They write that blogs are to the point that they cannot be ignored. They will not replace old media but will complement them (Holtz & Demopoulos, 2006). “…[Blogs] may be used to accomplish many of the tasks that would have been applied to a press release in the past. However, a press release remains the ultimate, official statement of record by an organization…” (Holtz & Demopoulos, 2006). Also, as technology becomes more accessible and easier to use, so, too, will blogs (Holtz & Demopoulos, 2006).

“As the importance and influence of blogging grows, those that do not will be at a disadvantage. Just as an organization that chooses to ignore an important communication channel such as print newspapers is to some extent impaired, organizations that ignore the blogosphere will be missing an important source of information and feedback about the organization, its industry, its people, and more.”   – Blogging for Business, by Shel Holtz and Ted Demopoulos (2006)

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Evaluating my Experience as a Corporate Blogger

In this post I’ll attempt to answer the questions I posed to myself at the end of  “My Experience as a Corporate Blogger.”

What did I do wrong and/or right?  I believe I went right by adding my name to posts and showing some personality to give the blog a more credible, human element. I wasn’t just regurgitating PR material. On the other hand, not asking for a blog policy or guidelines earlier or upon starting the job set me up for a clash.

What did they do wrong and/or right?   Based on my readings, they made several errors, including deleting something after it’s been posted, prior review and only allowing content related directly to the company (or to themselves). It is failure on my part and theirs by not having a blog policy or guidelines.

How could a situation like this have been avoided?   I think it could have been avoided with a BLOG POLICY or GUIDELINES. For example, the policy could say the topic of fatal injuries is off limits. Therefore I would know ahead of time what I could and could not write, they wouldn’t feel the need to delete something I already wrote and I wouldn’t have to get angry and lose my job over it. I guess I could also not start out on a story that I didn’t know the ending to, though I never would have predicted the ending that it had and I think doing it that way allowed for readers to have some fun following along in real time.

How does journalism relate to corporate blogging?   At the heart of the issue is that I stood up for journalistic ethics that I was being taught in college and personally believe in. As someone being trained to be a journalist, not a PR writer, did I even fit in writing a corporate blog?

Corporate blogs are an informal type of PR. Posts can tell a story, just like a newspaper article. Journalism and PR share some of the same ethics. For a refresher on blogging ethics, see my post here. The Public Relations Society of America and Society of Professional Journalists each have a code of ethics. Both journalism and PR must tell the truth, but PR material has some additional rules. From an earlier Blog O’ Blogs post – “Because corporate blogs are a form of advertising, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates the marketplace in the interest of consumers. Truth-in-advertising laws are in place to ensure advertisers are not deceiving customers.”

Good journalism shows all sides of a story, good and bad. Likewise, good PR acknowledges problems and what the company is doing to fix them, instead of ignoring them and simply writing about the glossy stuff in life.

Though the Internet has made it easier and far more common for journalism outlets to cover up mistakes, the standard has been to leave them and publicly correct them in future publications. This also goes for blogging, as covered at the end of this earlier post. The same goes for PR itself.

Journalists and PR practitioners should both avoid conflicts of interest. There is one conflict of interest, though, that is unavoidable and basically implied with corporate bloggers – they work for the company, so they are likely to write favorably about that company. That is an important difference that sets corporate blogs apart. Blogs, corporate and non-corporate, often contain opinion, something that should be absent in objective journalism.

So there are some differences between PR and journalism, but they share many common ethics and corporate blogs blend the two.

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Ignoring Reader Comments

Hot on the tail of my last post in which I wrote about corporate bloggers ignoring reader comments, Vic Zast addresses the issue in a horse racing context in “The Continuum of Frustration to Anger to Abandonment.”

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Blogs and Communication

Corporate blogs have shifted corporate communication from one-way information dissemination to two-way conversations (Raghavan, 2006). “Traditional PR and corporate/business communication theories, models and paradigms may not be successful in an era of advanced information technology and global audience. Internet technology has changed people, mode, channels and practices of corporate communication and feedback by minimizing the power-distance…” (Raghavan, 2006). Wright and Hinson (2008) write that corporate blogs also break some communication theories, such as the agenda setting theory (bypassing the media gatekeepers) and spiral of silence theory (giving minority viewpoints an outlet).

The principle way for corporations to allow conversations is by allowing reader comments, a topic I wrote about earlier in the blog. Those who post comments don’t usually expect a reply, but at the same time they don’t expect to be ignored (Holtz & Demopoulos, 2006). A writer can write a comment in reply to one specific reader comment or create a new post addressing comments made by multiple readers, but they should be consistent so people don’t perceive favoritism (Holtz & Demopoulos, 2006).

However, corporations need to be aware that readers and reader comments are probably not representative of the general population. Blogs tend to be enthymematic — they bring people already knowledgeable on a topic — so they trade wide readership for the ability to reach a niche audience (Kent, 2008). Reader comments have been called the “hallelujah ”choir (Kent, 2008), echo chamber phenomenon and cultural tribalism (Dwyer, 2007). However, reaching the choir is important when an organization is trying to influence opinion leaders, innovators, and early adopters (Kent, 2008). As Paine (2007) wrote, “Success in today’s marketplace is measured not by how broad your reach is but by how deep your network is.”

Corporations should also supply a way for readers to contact the writer or company other than public comments. Cho’s 2006 study of self-disclosure in 31 corporate blogs found that none provided contact information. Self-disclosure may increase credibility, but “the result of this study suggests that the corporate blogs are still likely to focus on making good impressions to their consumers and visitors rather than attempt to communicate with their consumers.” (Cho, 2006).

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My Experience as a Corporate Blogger

I was hired at Fairplex in the summer of 2008 with no specific job description other than that I would help out in the horse racing department, specifically with media. I first worked doing basic office duties, then wrote copy for press releases and print advertisements. My principle responsibility became the “Thoroughblogger” blog on Fairplex Park’s Web site. The original writer became too busy to keep up with it, so I took over. I could write, take photos and make videos.

I tried to continue what they had started. The blog discussed Fairplex Park and general topics in horse racing. It included their opinion, but never revealed their identity as the author. I eventually added my name on the posts I authored, at the suggestion of a journalist that was working in the press box with me during their race meet that September. I thought providing my name would give the blog more credibility because readers would know who was “speaking.”

Everything was going well. After their September race meet I continued to work on the blog as time allowed, considering I went back to college full-time.

My supervisor left around Thanksgiving that year, after the race meet, to take another job. Fairplex didn’t search for someone to replace them, so Fairplex tapped an employee from one of their other divisions to fill the void.

I always tried to find something different, to create unique content for the blog that one couldn’t find anywhere else. That would bring readers to the blog and Web site. In a photojournalism class at my college we were required to do a photo essay. I immediately wanted to do one related to horse racing, and decided to do one on a horse’s preparations in the week before a race. This photo essay would also provide fresh, original content to post on the blog.

Enter Blue Exit. I was kindly granted permission to take photos of him at critical junctions in the week before he ran in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap run at Santa Anita Park, not far from Fairplex. You can see all of the photos here. In order to keep the content relevant, I posted each day’s photos/video the same day I took them so readers could follow along in near-real time. The story had begun and I was going to follow through to the end. I knew I already had people hooked because of feedback on fan forums throughout the Internet, where I had posted links to promote the blog.

In a perfect world the grand finale would be an amazing win in the race! That was not to be. Things went horribly wrong, ending with Blue Exit suffering a fatal injury in the race. I think I had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than having that happen to a horse I knew and liked, a horse I was following for a photo essay, and a horse I was following on a corporate blog.

The last thing I wanted to do was write about that emotionally scarring day, but I thought I had the responsibility to the readers to finish the story I had started. I was not going to ignore the ending and act like it never happened, and I certainly wasn’t going to delete the posts I had already made on the subject. So I wrote. To review the post in its entirety, see my re-post HERE. I didn’t let it all hang out. I left out a lot of details, both related to the horse and myself, but I did include some personal feelings, something that my readings have indicated is a good thing for corporate blogs. Now, I don’t know if this applies to sad emotions, but I couldn’t control the ending to the story. It was sad and there’s no way around it.

I got several consolatory comments from concerned readers. That’s several more comments than other posts had been averaging. Readers obviously cared.

Fast forward two weeks later and an employee in the horse racing department notified me that my new supervisor, who hadn’t even talked to me since they took over the prior year, wanted to review my posts before they went on the blog. Phone conversations that I had with them indicated they hadn’t even been reading the Web site, let alone the blog, until after the Blue Exit incident. The employee who told me about the reviewing process, and my new supervisor, suggested some topics for the blog to take my mind off of things, but they were things I felt were a clear conflict of interest – things they had a personal interest in.

I don’t have a problem with the posts being reviewed. I’d rather be corrected early than scolded later for not knowing what was OK and what wasn’t (there were no blog policies or guidelines at Fairplex). I do, however, have a problem with the person reviewing them not letting me post anything that isn’t directly related to them. That is what happened once I agreed to the reviewing process. That is not promoting Fairplex nor is it fostering interesting content to attract readers.

At this point supervisor-employee relations are now aggravated. But wait, there’s more! One day I noticed the final Blue Exit post was gone. Poof! I was annoyed that they hadn’t notified me they were doing this and just hoped I’d never notice. If they had asked me or told me that they wanted to take it down, I would not have been that angry. When I asked my supervisor why it had been taken down, they replied in an e-mail saying it was “a little dark for our blog.” It was deleted more than three weeks after it was originally posted. It had already been seen and noted by readers, so what harm did they think they were preventing by taking it down then?

I let my supervisor know that I wasn’t happy with how it was handled and explained my reasoning for posting it in the first place. I also told them I’d like to have guidelines so I don’t waste my time reporting/writing something only to have them deny posting. They replied “I agree that the other two Blue Exit blogs should have been removed with the first one.” That’s not what I asked for! They went on to write, “In an effort to utilize our full time employees better, we will be doing the blogging in house from now on.” So I lost my little corporate blogging job and the other perfectly bright Blue Exit posts were deleted.

I watched what happened to the blog afterwards, and it was depressing. The blog posts had errors and became more and more infrequent until they eventually just…stopped. The last post was Aug. 19, 2009. Right at the time I left, Fairplex was trying to ramp up their social media presence (Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), asking for my assistance on the horse racing end of it. That never took off, not helped by the fact that I was no longer there.

I wasn’t happy to lose my job, but I wasn’t dependent on it for a living so I felt it was more important to stand up for what I believe in. I was/am majoring in communication with an emphasis in journalism. I have been taught journalistic ethics and agree with them.

The Blue Exit incident prompted me to select corporate blogs as my topic for my senior capstone project, and now that I have researched the topic more I want to apply my what I have learned to my experience. What did I do wrong and/or right? What did they do wrong and/or right? How does journalism relate to corporate blogging? How could a situation like this have been avoided? I’ll address these questions in future posts.

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Legal Risks Posed by Corporate Blogs

As mentioned in the last post, it’s a good idea for a company to have blog guidelines. A major reason for this is the legal risks posed by corporate blogs. “Absent special circumstances, a corporation is responsible legally for statements of which it is the source – whether through the oral or written statements of or made through its agents.” (Terilli, Driscoll, & Stacks, 2008). If a blog is done with tools, office space, etc. provided by corporation, it is a liability. Every time an employee writes a post and a member of the public sees and/or comments on it, legal evidence for or against an organization is created (Flynn, 2006). Commercial speech does not have as much First Amendment protection as other types of speech, such as political, arts and sciences (Terilli, Jr. & Arnorsdottir, 2008). In Nike v. Kasky 539 U.S. 654 (2003), the California Supreme Court defined commercial speech as anything likely to influence buying decisions of consumers (Terilli, Jr. & Arnorsdottir, 2008). As established in the Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp v. Public Service Commission 447 U.S. 557 (1980) case, commercial speech is a problem when it is deceptive, false or for an illegal product or service (Terilli, Jr. & Arnorsdottir 2008). Other major legal risks of corporate blogs include:

• Leaked Confidential Info
• Breaking the Security Exchange Commission’s disclosure rules for publicly traded companies
• Copyright infringement
• Defamation
• Invasion of privacy
• Sexual harassment
• Offensive content

Blogs are more dangerous that other forms of corporate communication because incorrect information can spread quickly through permalinks, pings, links, etc. (Flynn, 2006). “Even though a defamatory comment may be removed from a company’s server (and access blocked), the information may nevertheless remain prominent in the blogosphere.” (Terilli, Driscoll, & Stacks, 2008).

Some of the risky content comes through reader comments. However, Terilli, Driscoll and Stacks (2008) write that if a blog allows third-party readers to independently post comments, then the company would likely escape liability. This applies even when comments are moderated.

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Establishing Blog Policies

After a writer is trained and before they write their first blog post, it’s in the company’s and writer’s best interest to establish written rules to avoid potential blog pitfalls.

Flynn’s (2006) “blog action plan” is a complete yet concise approach:

1. Form a blog risk-management, compliance and litigation team to create blog rules and enact them.

2. Assign a “blog czar.”

3. Establish a clear objective.

4. Train employees about blogs.

5. Require employees to sign an agreement that they won’t share confidential company info or offensive content on a blog.

6. Use discipline to enforce blog policies.

 Creating a policy like this lets the writer know what they can and cannot write and lets the company have more faith in the content they write. This can help prevent a review process, like what Holtz and Demopoulos (2006) warn against. They write that most content that goes public goes through a review process, but blogs shouldn’t. Instead of reactively reviewing blogs to ensure their content won’t cause problems outside the organization, you should proactively ensure that your bloggers know the limitations of what they can and cannot say. The best way to do this is to develop and communicate a blogging policy.” This prevents content from sounding filtered. Avoiding the review-and-approval process allows quicker blogging. Time is of the essence.

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