Want to blog? Stick to the rules

Industry players say companies that encourage their employees to blog should also set policies to guide them along.

Companies looking to capitalize on corporate weblogs to make themselves more visible, should steer clear of liabilities and pitfalls by having policies in place to guide their employees, say blogging experts and tech lawyers.

Companies ought to "make suggestions, but not govern or have a very harsh policy," said Susannah Gardner, co-founder and creative director of Web design company Hop Studios Internet Consultants. Also the author of Buzz Marketing with Blogs for Dummies, Gardner was recently in Singapore for Blog Asia, which discussed the state of corporate blogging in the Asia-Pacific region.

"If you have very clear guidelines (to determine) what is and what isn't acceptable, a person (is less likely to) make a mistake," she said.

According to a white paper published earlier this year, nearly 70 percent of companies have no policies or guidelines in place for employees who blog. The study, conducted by business intelligence software provider Intelliseek and public relations consultant Edelman, said the lack of clear guidelines could lead to inconsistency in standards of dealing with different blogger employees.

Agnes Tan, head of online communications at Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts, was a participant at the conference. She noted that policy was an area of concern for the company.

The resort chain, for over a year now, has been toying with the idea of using a corporate blog to "talk about issues close to our hearts" such as eco-friendly tourism, she explained.

"We need to think through how we are going to go about doing it, and the issues we should be talking about," she said.

Common pitfalls
Rajesh Sreenivasan, a partner at law firm Rajah & Tann, pointed out that there are general legal obligations to follow. People need to understand they will still be held accountable for what they say or publish, whether in the physical or cyber environment, he said.

Legal liabilities, he noted, include defamation, libel, copyright and intellectual property infringements, inciting others to commit offences such as the two Singaporean bloggers who were charged for posting racist remarks in their blog sites.

New communication channels such as e-mail and blogging, being real-time and immediate, have inevitably led some to make public their thoughts without considering the consequences.

Sreenivasan noted that two secretaries at a law firm in Sydney, Australia, were reportedly fired recently over an e-mail spat, which spread when other employees in the company began forwarding the e-mail exchanges.

"The thing is, blogging is a much easier and faster way of posting messages," Sreenivasan said. "And often, people (post their remarks) on the spur of the moment, which might cause people to slip up and make mistakes."

Bloggers must have the discipline and responsibility, to check that what they write is done within boundaries, he said.

Tan Min-Liang, associate director at Singapore-based law firm Keystone Law, added that establishing guidelines on blogging is a win-win situation for both the employer and the employee.

"For the employer, it's (about having) the ability to restrict trade secrets or invention that have yet to be announced publicly or patented, from being disclosed," Tan said. He noted that polices can also prevent potential lawsuits.

"The employee has corresponding rights to expression, given (that he follows) proper guidelines as to what to disclose and what not to disclose."

Tan added that a rule of thumb for an employee who blogs, would be to "assume that his

employer is reading his blog, and if there's anything he feels his employer would not feel comfortable about, (then) it shouldn't be written."

Mind the penalties
According to Sreenivasan, employees who do not follow requirements set out by their companies, such as keeping sensitive company data confidential, can face potential dismissal.

Employees who are fired as a result of comments made on their blog--also known as "dooced", in blog speak--are not uncommon. Delta Air Lines, Google and social network portal Friendster, have all dismissed workers over contentious blog postings.

Hop Studios' Gardner argued it is unclear if companies that do not have corporate blogging policies, can take action against employees who are deemed to have crossed acceptable boundaries. Calling it an "unresolved issue", she noted that there are currently ongoing lawsuits in the United States involving such circumstances, and it is not clear yet how the judges will rule.

With the increasing prominence given to blogs, Gardner said companies need to think about what they should do when someone breaks the "rules" or does not follow the suggestion.

"You have to have a policy in place that allows you to deal with disciplinary issues before they happen," she said.

Sun Microsystems, for example, is one company that has put a set of basic guidelines on public disclosure. Yahoo's blogging guidelines also include best practices, such as being respectful of other colleagues and being open to off-blog--or offline--feedback.

Tan Kin Lian, CEO of Singapore-owned insurer NTUC Income, runs a blog which he uses to discuss various topics including issues related to the company's products and services. But Tan told ZDNet Asia, in an e-mail interview, that his blog clearly states all views expressed are his personal opinions, and do not necessarily reflect that of the company's position.

He also makes it a point not to "express views that are offensive, seditious or defamatory", but to instead take a "helpful and positive" approach.

Paul Chaney, president of the Professional Bloggers Association, said: "Blogging as an activity is maturing." Chaney is also president of the Radiant Marketing Group, a business blogging consulting firm.

Companies could learn along the way as blogging, and the issues around it, continue to evolve, he said. "Surely from time to time, there's going to be missteps, but that's part of the learning process."

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