Navigating Asia's minefields in corporate blogging

With online journals becoming increasingly popular, it's high time Asian businesses start looking at establishing guidelines so employees know how to blog safely.

MALAYSIA--The enterprise community is beginning to view blogging as alternative means to interact with customers and partners, promote corporate unity and strengthen corporate branding. However, telling the whole world about company matters has potential risks which bloggers may sometimes be unaware of.

Though still a rare occurrence in Asia, there have been reports of companies in the United States firing employees or contractors over the content of their personal online journals. In most cases, the bloggers were terminated for criticizing the company or fellow workers, disclosing confidential information or discussing offensive material.

Despite the risk, few companies in the region have formulated policies that specifically address blogging activities conducted by their employees. Given the potential minefields that exist for corporate bloggers, multinational companies have taken the lead to issue blogging guidelines for employees.

At Sun Microsystems, where over 1,300 employees blog on the company's Web site, there are blogging guidelines which ominously warn employeesthat posting "the wrong thing on your blog could cost you your job at Sun".

According to the guidelines, disclosure of non-public technical information such as software codes, without prior approval can have severe repercussions. The guidelines state that doing so can cause Sun, to lose its right to protect its intellectual property and export its products and technology outside the United States.

Sun employees are also warned that disclosing or speculating on the company's non-public financial or operational information can result in "swift and severe" legal consequences for the blogger, as well as Sun. Most of the risks associated with blogging by employees can be avoided by "just being careful and responsible", the company's guidelines advise.

Professional or not?
Perhaps recognizing the growing popularity of blogs, Malaysia's Information Ministry is currently attempting to classify bloggers--either as professionals and non-professionals--as a means to prevent misuse of blogs.

The country's national news agency Bernama recently reported that Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin defines professional bloggers as those who are "more responsible" in ensuring their Web content is based on the truth, and not rumors.

"This classification will also facilitate the action to be taken against those found to have violated the country's laws," Zainuddin said.

According to Tyson Dowd, Microsoft Malaysia's senior director of local software economy, employees at the software company are reminded "to be smart" when they write blogs.

"First, employees must follow all Microsoft policies on standards of business conduct, confidential information and human resources policies," Dowd told ZDNet Asia. "This is no different in terms of [how employees are expected to handle] e-mail, phone calls, blogging and public speaking."

"Second, try to imagine your blog on the front page of the newspaper… If you are comfortable about putting what you wrote as front page news, then your blog is probably fine," he said. "Another good test is to imagine your boss or CEO reading the blog."

Company bloggers have the responsibility to avoid breaking any of a country's laws, he noted. "It's a basic requirement of employment that employees follow the law. Blogging is no different here."

Dowd said that Microsoft encourages its staff to blog and provides both external and internal systems and tools to help create and maintain blogs for its employees. In Malaysia, many of Microsoft's technical staff maintain blogs relating to their technical interests, he added.

"Many staff also have personal blogs that share pictures and information of their friends and family. Beyond regular blogging, Microsoft employees also do a lot of podcasting and video podcasting," he said.

Bloggers at another IT giant IBM, took it upon themselves in 2005 to create a set of blogging guidelines, aimed at protecting both the bloggers and the company. The guidelines were subsequently endorsed by IBM and currently apply to blogs within and outside of IBM Web sites.

According to a note published on IBM's corporate site, the company said that while it respects the right of its employees to set up external personal blogs, "activities in or outside of work that affect your IBM job performance, the performance of others, or IBM's business interests are a proper focus for company policy".

The guidelines state that blogs, wikis and other forms of online discourse are individual interactions and not corporate communications. As such, IBMers are personally responsible for their posts. For external blogs, employees are encouraged to use a disclaimer stating, for example, that "postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions".

The guidelines require IBM bloggers to identify themselves when blogging about IBM or IBM-related matters. They are also advised to write in the first person, so it is clear they are speaking for themselves and not on behalf of the company.

The guidelines also stipulate that IBM bloggers have to comply with IBM's Business Conduct Guidelines, respect copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws, and are not permitted to disclose or use IBM confidential or proprietary information, or that of any other person or company on any blog.

IBM bloggers are further advised "not to pick fights, be the first to correct your own mistakes, and don't alter previous posts without indicating that you have done so".

Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.

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