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July 24th, 2005

Corporate and Employee Blog Policies – Unplugged

Last Thursday, Voce was pleased to co-host a panel discussion with Cooley Godward on corporate and employee blog policies: “How Companies are Adapting to a New Communications Frontier” (more here).

Voce_cooley_panelWe would like to extend a big THANK YOU to all the panelists for taking the time to share their insights, advice and anecdotes on how they’re each thinking about and tackling some of the sticky issues around corporate and employee blogs.  We would also like to thank Forrester’s Charlene Li for sharing her research and leading a great discussion.

While last week’s event covered a lot of ground and addressed most of the core policy problems companies are grappling with right now, best practices are still largely in development across corporate America — so the conversation must continue.  With this in mind, we wanted to share a few of the highlights and learnings from the panel in hopes that those who couldn’t attend might still benefit from the discussion and ultimately build on this moving forward.

What’s the value of a corporate blog? (please note responses are paraphrased)
*Chris Shipley/Guidewire Group: Blogging removes the distance people sometimes feel with big monolithic corporations – there’s an inability to relate.  Blogging counters this and can help humanize a company.

*Jeremy Zawodny/Yahoo!: A corporate blog can shape (or reshape) people’s perceptions of a company.  It provides a window into the people and culture and in some cases it provides a better understanding of their products.  He also mentioned that an ancillary benefit of his personal blog and the Yahoo! Search Blog has been its help with recruiting.

*Catherine Peterson/Business Objects: From an investment perspective, corporate blogs have the potential to serve as great sources for incremental information on a company.  She also commented that the humanizing effect that Shipley referred to can also influence a growing population of people who are seeking that type of connection with the companies they invest in.

What’s the downside of a corporate blog?
*Zawodny: The time commitment typically surprises people – in terms of creating content and actively monitoring things.

*Peterson: Quoted Warren Buffett: “It’s easier to not get in trouble then to get yourself out of trouble.“  Point being that companies are doing business in an increasingly regulated environment and that for some it may be easier (read safer) to remain conservative with external communication than to take a risk with a company blog.

Do you have an employee blog policy?  How was it created?
*Peterson: Yes, it was born out of corp. comm., but several departments were involved in its development.  Also, Business Objects’ developer community played an important role in its creation.

*Zawodny: Yes, and he shared some of the thinking behind Yahoo!’s policy.  Yahoo!’s focus was less on setting limitations and more on sharing best practices.  Zawodny, speaking from his own experience, explained that there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to blogging about company and industry issues and that Yahoo’s guidelines were designed to help people navigate through the lessons he and other Yahoo bloggers have learned.

*Jodi Baumann/NetApp: Yes, although after further research, her team decided not to create a separate blogging policy and to instead incorporate a few additional guidelines into the standard employee agreement.

*Charlene Li/Forrester: Profiled IBM and how it created its corporate blogging policy over the course of 10 days through the use of an employee wiki for soliciting input and edits.

What are the legal risks of blogging?
*Chuck Schwab/Cooley Godward: New technologies can be problematic for businesses because it’s not always clear how (or if) existing laws will apply to them.  But with respect to blogs, the three biggest areas of legal risk are:
1). Protecting the company’s intellectual property
2). Slander and invasion of privacy
3). Security law
Employees haven’t really been in a position (historically speaking) where they can make risky public statements that can spread globally.  Now they can, so there’s a greater need for companies to be proactive with their thinking around policy.  Its’ not enough to say, “Just use common sense” because there are too many gray areas.

Is a policy enough?  What happens when it’s broken?
*Schwab: Establishing some sort of blogging policy or at least adding some language into employee agreements should suffice for most companies.  Each organization will need to decide what the appropriate recourse is for not abiding by the ground rules (referenced Mark Jen).  NOT having a policy in place will certainly make this more problematic for companies.

Can a company regulate an employee’s blog?
*Schwab: Legally, there’s no basis for telling employees what they can and cannot blog about, as long as they’re not sharing company IP, breaking security law, etc.

*Baumann: Shared that there are instances were an employee can blog and stay within the boundaries of the corporate policy, but still say things that are harmful and damaging to the reputation of the company.

*Schwab: Companies can’t prohibit basic constitutional freedoms, there are laws in some states that prohibit an employer from disciplining an employee for political activity or free expression. However in instances where the employee is associating the employer’s brand with his or her own personal interests, then the company has grounds for taking action.

What’s IR’s biggest concern with a corporate blog?
*Peterson: Materiality is the biggest issue.  Hints to product release timing, forward-looking statements, speculation on deals, customer relationships, partnerships, etc., are what IR departments are most concerned with.  The other concern/question is “will this [corporate blog] really benefit the business and offer value to the investors?”  Every company needs to do its own cost/benefit analysis.

Who’s involved in content approval for your corporate blog?
*Baumann: Corp. comm., and no one else.  As needed, some content may get “escalated” up the food chain to IR or legal for review, but that’s on an as-needed basis.  The discretion lies with PR.  The reason being that too many hands in the approval process would inevitably affect the content and hinder the frequency of posts.

*Zawodny: PR is involved in the approval process, although as time passes and comfort levels increase, the PR team is beginning to step back and only intercede as needed.

*Peterson: Every company should have at least two people reviewing content – if for nothing else but an extra set of eyes.  It’s too easy to mistakenly share info that could prove problematic if no one else is checking the copy.

Are there any legal liabilities with enabling comments and/or trackbacks?
*Schwab: The Communications Decency Act should protect companies from the comments readers may leave on a corporate blog.  Also, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act should protect companies where copyright infringement is concerned (e.g., a commenter leaves a link to a copyrighted video or music file).

*Zawodny: Most of the comments the Yahoo Search blog receives are positive and neutral. A small percentage are negative and are typically dealt with on a case-by-case, depending on the sensitivity of the issue among other things.  He also mentioned that the Search team would rather see dissenting opinions being shared in a forum where they can be seen and acted upon, verses festering on a message board or blog in a distant corner of the Web.

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