Will's Web Watch: Blogging (Part II)

What value the corporate blog?

What value the corporate blog?

In the second instalment of his two-part column on the blog phenomenon (see part one), Will Sturgeon looks at the reasons why more and more companies are taking the well-trodden path towards offering corporate blogs, aimed at providing an insight into what is happening within the company. But how wise is such a move?

Like logos, mission statements and awards on walls, the corporate blog has become something of a fashionable 'must have' for companies keen to be seen as dynamic and progressive.

But how wise is this? It is certainly something companies must avoid rushing into without thinking first about the problems they may encounter and the issues their blog may throw up. As with all fashions there are those who will be doing it purely because it's the done thing and not because it lends any value.

Then there are companies who will be able to derive real value from running a corporate blog, and nowhere is this more the case than in the technology space. Adobe is one of the most recent companies to launch a blog, and so far seems to be handling the relationship between its corporate location and the necessity for free and un-bureaucratic speech.

There is something of an oxymoron in all of this. The very phrase 'corporate blog' sounds like a contradiction. Blogs were intended to be the antithesis of the corporate information mill and yet inevitably that grass roots popularity brought the phenomenon far enough above the parapet for the large corporate to think 'we fancy a bit of that'.

One specific area of IT where the corporate blog has a perfect fit is within the IT security industry, an environment overrun with forthright opinions, breaking news and controversial subject matter - all the ingredients of a great blog if pulled together well.

The following is certainly not unique to any one sector, or even any one industry - the disciplines should be universal - but it's an area I know well and one which throws up examples of good and bad.

For example, Finnish security firm F-Secure is certainly committed to updating its blog - with prodigious regularity - and keeping readers abreast of the breaking news within its industry.

Updates are informed, often with supporting material and the kind of facts and figures required for putting issues into perspective. Written predominantly by the techies (for other sectors, read 'experts'), such as the company's CTO, Mikko Hypponen, it is also importantly light on marketing guff, if a little too heavy on repetitive themes such as an apparent obsession with mobile phone-borne viruses (and I believe corporate blogs can suffer if they become too blinkered on any particular issue, selling the company concerned as something of a one-trick pony).

Within the security industry, information can be hugely time-sensitive. While a company may be loathe to issue a formal press release every time there is a blip on the radar screen, they will also be aware that the time from an outbreak to notifying the press and warning the wider world is also hampered by levels of reporting and the internal politics of disseminating such information.

Well maintained blogs, if they become a commonly referenced source of information, can speed up these processes while allowing for a far more informal - but arguably more useful - reporting tool.

But any time-sensitive blog can also backfire. One which I had personally bookmarked upon its launch, hoping it would prove to be of some use, was actually shuttered on the very day I was writing this column - presumably because it hadn't been updated for several months.

And that's a huge problem. Had they really missed all the breaking news from the past two months?

If you are going to launch a corporate blog and tell people it's there on your site then you have to make sure you update it. Nothing says 'we're a two-bit organisation' like a two-month old post at the top of your blog.

Therefore if you launch a corporate blog you have to ensure you have the buy-in and guaranteed long-term enthusiasm for the project of everybody who is going to be working on it. (continued on next page...)

And therein lies another issue. Companies must decide how formal they want to make their blog. Will it be part of an in-house comms strategy - an approach which might make it slightly dry, given the red tape which binds some companies, or will it be a free-for-all which throws up the chance of causing both accidental and malicious damage?

A close friend of mine from the PR industry isn't convinced that the formal approach is one companies should consider.

"Too many corporate blogs have become just another marketing tool, bylined to the management but inevitably written by the marketing team," he told me recently.

"For those that can see through this and weed out those that aren't genuine, they'll remain valuable. For those that can't, scepticism and cynicism will probably creep in, rendering them all useless."

And that uncertainty is hard to overcome.

Some companies appear happy to abdicate responsibility to the masses. Microsoft, for example, is a company which encourages all its employees to run blogs that can deal, though not exclusively, with corporate issues.

According to one blogger within the senior management team at Microsoft there is an 'anything goes' policy which to date has thrown up very few issues.

But whether it's an official corporate blog, hosted on the company's website, or a personal blog run by an employee, more and more companies are realising the need for a blogging policy included alongside other HR issues, such as email and internet use.

Companies must define clearly what can be said and what can't. The corporate blog certainly represents a legal minefield and there is a fine line between a news update and an unwanted leak.

Many companies may like the idea of running a blog but the enthusiasm would wane pretty quickly if somebody within the company posted plans which handed competitive advantage to a rival.

But simply keeping the postings trite is also no alternative. It might limit the risk of anything being said which could prove contentious but it also greatly reduces the risk of the blog being at all interesting. There are some blogs out there that would make for a fairly dull message board on a company intranet - but to share such aimless musings with the wider world is unforgivable.

The only real given here is that over the coming year we can expect to see a great many more companies jump onto the blogging bandwagon, and you can guarantee there will be some successes and doubtless spectacular failures.

I would urge companies to do all they can to ensure they aren't one of the latter because blogs offer up the threat of a very public and very immediate shaming for those companies who trip themselves up - not to mention writing great copy for their rivals' blogs.