On May 31, 2006, The New York Times published an article by columnist Thomas Friedman that featured some pointed criticism of General Motors.
Friedman charged that GM’s promotion of SUVs was feeding America’s addiction to oil. Comparing GM to a “crack dealer” for oil dependency, he said the corporation is “more dangerous to America’s future” than any other company.
GM officials were livid. They drafted a letter to the editor, which has typically been the only recourse available to public figures who believe they’ve been wronged by the print media. But they also took their case to the Web.
The day after the Friedman column appeared, GM’s global communications vice president Steven Harris posted a 1,000- word entry on GM’s Fastlane blog refuting the column in detail. “Either Mr. Friedman is being a propagandist, or he’s woefully misinformed,” Harris wrote. The commentary went on to highlight GM’s achievements in improving fuel economy.
GM also began discussions with the New York Times’ editorial page editors, hoping to place a letter to the editor. But the discussions broke down after a week, when the sides couldn’t agree on length and terminology. GM’s letter to the editor never appeared in the Times. What it did online, though, was much more powerful.
A week after the Harris comments appeared on GM’s blog, GM publicist Brian Akre, who had been charged with placing a letter in the Times, wrote with a voice mixing passion and disgust:
The Times suggested [the word] “rubbish” [in our letter] be changed first to, “We beg to differ.” We objected. The Times then suggested it be changed to, “Not so.” We stood our ground. In the end, The Times refused to let us call the column “rubbish.”
Why? “It’s not the tone we use in Letters,” wrote Mary Drohan, a letters editor.
In June 2006, bloggers posted more than 100 articles about the spat. Mainstream media picked up on the story. Readers flooded the GM Fastlane blog, posting hundreds of comments, most complimentary to GM. A month after the original column appeared, newspapers, magazines and websites were still writing about the dustup. GM had generated far more positive publicity by blogging than it would have created with a letter in print.
As the GM episode illustrates, blogs offer an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to speak directly to the public. Scores of major corporations are now blogging, but adoption has been cautious. Big business’s hesitation to blog is more likely a by-product of cultural conservatism and paranoia than a thoughtful strategy of avoidance. And there’s evidence that attitudes are changing quickly. Since mid- 2006, for example, corporations like Toyota, Miller Brewing, GlaxoSmithKline and Eastman Kodak have also been wading in to the blogging pool.
Early successes are drawing attention. A mid-2006 survey by market intelligence firm Cymfony and public relations firm Porter Novelli found that 76 percent of corporate blog owners said that their blogs increased media attention and/or website traffic.
For large businesses, the appeal is to create new communication channels for reaching constituents. Companies embracing the principles of openness and honesty that the community demands find blogs are an inexpensive way to extend their brands. Those that insist on secrecy and control are probably better off staying silent.
And if you think a corporate blog will make your customers love you or the media go easy on you, forget it. Public forums can be used for executions just as easily as celebrations. You’re going to get some criticism, but you’ll also find out who your friends are.
Blogging doesn’t make you cool either. General Motors, Microsoft, Wal-Mart and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America aren’t hip, but they have blogs. Apple Computer is hipness personified but doesn’t blog at all. Nike’s the hippest shoe company in the world, but it’s silent in the blogosphere. There is no Harley Hog Blog.
Corporations shouldn’t blog unless they know why they’re doing it. A boring blog will do more harm than good. However, for companies that are interested in taking the plunge, there are compelling benefits.
The best reason to blog is to engage in a conversation with people who care about your company and products. For example, GM revived the Chevrolet Camaro in August 2006 driven, in part, by more than 900 requests posted on the Fastlane blog. Many successful business bloggers regularly log hundreds of comments on their postings. This unvarnished feedback can be enormously helpful in shaping strategy and product development.
However, there have been plenty of failures. One of my clients complained that his company had lost interest in blogging after an early experience failed to ignite interest. Looking at the remnants of the blog (online content never dies), it was easy to see why: Entries were vacuous, jargon-filled marketing promotions. There were no links, and readers couldn’t comment.
If you’re going to launch a company blog, take a little extra time to learn how to do it right. Following are some reasons why.
Your corporate blog will automatically go on the reading list of every journalist who covers your company. If you do it right, they will want to read your content.
When GoDaddy.com tussled with ABC over the network’s objections to its Super Bowl ads in 2006, CEO Bob Parsons blogged frequently to tell his company’s side of the story. “I was constantly posting new entries,” he said. “We made that our central point of updates for employees, customers and the media.”Adds publicist and blogger Eric Schwartzman, “You are no longer dependent on a third-party outlet to get the message to the target.”
TELLING YOUR STORY
Blogs are a way for executives to speak directly to their constituents. They can also counter negative perceptions. For example, Microsoft launched a behind-the-scenes video series in 2005 to help humanize the company at a time when it was widely regarded as a faceless monopolist.
But beware of false transparency. Ford Motor Co.’s 2006 online “Bold Moves” campaign was intended to make amends for the company’s past mistakes. Among the website features were interviews with Ford executives acknowledging the company’s past mistakes and videos shot by a camera team that was said to have been given open access to Ford facilities. The effort was criticized for being slick and contrived. Corporate insincerity is quickly sniffed out. On the other hand, GM’s campaign against Friedman was effective because it was so raw and genuine.
FEEDING A FRENZY
If you’re fortunate enough to have a rabid customer base, a blog is a cheap, effective way to stoke the fires of passion. For example, Southwest Airlines’ Nuts About Southwest blog is a frothy celebration that mirrors the feel-good culture of its employees. Guinness &Co. uses a blog to tell stout-lovers where they can meet the Guinness marketing crew.
PROMOTING A PRODUCT
Overt promotion can’t be too blatant, but product-focused blogs do work. Owens Corning, welding equipment maker Arc-Zone and distiller Diageo North America have all used character bloggers, like Owens’ Pink Panther mascot, to represent their products. While all have inspired criticism for being too contrived, the sponsors’ persistence attests to their success. If you’re going to push a product with a blog, be absolutely transparent about your motives and keep content educational and useful.
HAVE A REASON
The worst reason to launch a corporate blog is that it’s the thing to do. You need a mission and a long-term commitment.
GM’s Fastlane Blog, for example, introduced the world to innovative people within the company as a way to combat a stodgy image. Microsoft launched Port 25, a blog aimed at developers of open-source software, in the spring of 2006, to soften the hostile relationship it’s had with these people for years. The audience initially reacted with derision, but Microsoft responded constructively, and within a few weeks, the discussion turned constructive.
Previously it was unthinkable for a corporation to invite critics into a forum of its own making. But Port 25 was a success in smoothing what had been a contentious situation. Conversation works.
Before starting a corporate blog, have a mission. Maybe it’s to advocate for a cause, fix a customer service problem or comment on public policy. That goal will give you the incentive to keep at it.
TYPES OF CORPORATE BLOGS
Don’t rush into corporate blogging with an undifferentiated strategy or under-prepared employees. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. Critics will sniff that out quickly and skewer your efforts. Launch internally a few weeks before you go public and give your people a chance to work out the kinks. Ask trusted outsiders for feedback. There are several approaches you can take:
The safest route for most corporations is a company blog. Some good examples are Nuts About Southwest (www.blogsouthwest.com), the official Google Blog (googleblog.blogspot.com) and Dell Computer’s One2One (www.direct2dell.com). These are blogs where the topic is the company. They permit you a fair amount of showboating because readers understand that the purpose is mainly to advance a company’s agenda. Company blogs are a great way to tell existing customers about new initiatives and to celebrate successes. They’re less effective as a way to recruit new customers.
Developing a distinctive voice for a company blog is difficult. Contributors must be coached to make sure they use consistent language. It’s also tougher to engage in conversations with customers when the lineup of contributors changes frequently.
On the other hand, company blogs are easy to maintain and update. It’s a good place to float ideas, seek feedback and take a public stand on important issues.
A somewhat more controversial option is to create a lineup of executive blogs. These are written by senior managers and tend to be heavy on strategy and vision. Hewlett- Packard and the Edelman public relations firm do this, as do individual managers at IBM, O’Reilly Media and Thomas Nelson Publishers, among others.
It’s hard to make this strategy work. Executives are busy people, and effective blogging takes time. These people also tend to be excessively cautious, which can make them boring. And they tend not to have the intense customer relationships that people on the front lines enjoy. But if executives are committed and willing to blog, they can share their thoughts and strategies with a larger audience than they could reach through any other means.
Companywide Blog Platform
A third approach is a companywide blog platform. This gives employees a company-sanctioned sandbox for personal blogs. Tech companies have done this with great success; Microsoft alone has more than 4,000 employee bloggers. However, this strategy involves the greatest overall time commitment because of the sheer number of man-hours that employees must commit.
A company blog platform is a good tool for businesses that have difficulty getting feedback from customers or that have layers of partners between themselves and their customers. Everyone gets to speak, and customers like having the chance to engage with the people who build the products they use.
On the downside, you need to give up control. It’s impossible to regulate what hundreds or thousands of people are going to say, and you shouldn’t even try. Create and publish behavior guidelines. Make sure readers know that employees are speaking for themselves and not the company.
If you have good policies in place, you’ll probably have few problems. Microsoft’s blogging policy consists of two words – “Be smart” – and it has never encountered a legal or regulatory problem as a result of its employee blogging. Surveys have documented a measurable improvement in customer satisfaction.
The culture of the blogosphere is freewheeling, opinionated and fast. If you can’t adapt to it, don’t bother with a company blog. As we’ve seen, a blog is a great way to address problems, influence opinion and lasso customer enthusiasm. Do it because you want to do it. With enough passion and commitment, it’s hard to go wrong.