Tuesday, March 17, 2009
The Limits of Limiting Blogger Free Speech (or: You're Worrying about the Wrong Thing)
Here's a nice way to make use of that "schedule for future release" feature that we added to our blogging application a couple weeks ago... Every once in a while, I'll see an article that I want to blog about. I'll create a draft and drop in the link so I can work on it later. Most of the time I wind up finishing the post, but other times I don't get around to it, so the post winds up languishing in drafts, never to be finished.
Prior to the future release scheduling, I had little incentive to finish the post because once the content was submitted and approved, the post would appear based on the date that the post was first saved as a draft. The older the post, the less likely the post would be seen at the top of blog listings. By changing the publish date, I am able to revive old posts that still have relevance and put the finishing touches on them. The following post is a good example of this technique.
Back in December of last year, the regional business website NJBiz
ran an article about corporate conduct policies and blogging
. The article has renewed relevance because it dovetails with the post I published yesterday
regarding online reputation monitoring and defense.
In the prior post we took a look at marketers worrying about how adverse comments by third parties could damage the reputation of a company. In the NJBiz
story, the focus is employment law attorneys who sound the alarm bell about the threat from within -- online indiscretions by employees that could harm the company's reputation.
While I understand the importance of discretion and decorum, the tone of the article rubbed me the wrong way. Before I lay into the parts the bugged me, I will summarize where I do agree with the article.
- For any business, there exists a pool of information that provides the company a competitive advantage. It could be a trade secret, a strategic plan, or a list of customers. It is in the best interest of that company to ensure that this information remains non-public, and it is reasonable for a company to proactively have their employees sign agreements to protect that secrecy.
- Employees oftentimes find themselves representing the company to the public in some form or another. It is in the best interest of the company to communicate to their employees the expectations of conduct that the company believes will help develop and maintain a good reputation.
- If an employee is participating in a forum as a private individual, there needs to be clear disclosure that he or she is not representing the company.
- Under no circumstances should an employee write content that would affect the company's interests under a pseudonym, as was the case with Rick Frenkel at Cisco.
Now that we've established the points of agreement, let's talk about why I didn't like this article. The article stirs up a cloud of mistrust about employees and paints this picture of where the employer's interests reign supreme. I could imagine a heavy handed manager using this advice to assert the need to invasively police the personal lives of its employees.
It's bad enough when the high school mentality
pervades a business' perception of external parties. When the mentality drives management to treat all employees as potential threats from within, it really poisons the well of the workplace. Cracking down too hard on employees will worsen morale, stifle authenticity on blogs, and possibly backfire in the public eye.
These are tough economic times. Your business is probably being challenged on many fronts. The last thing you need is an adversarial relationship with your employees because their energy and vitality is part of what helps set your organization apart from the competition. Motivated employees put their heart into their work and have a shared interest in the continued success of the company. Treating them like they are the enemy is not going to foster the loyalty that attorney Helen Tuttle is quoted as being owed to the employer.
On the blogging front, as has been mentioned so many times before in this space, authenticity is essential
. Press release posts are a recipe for corporate blogging failure. If you take John Sarno's advice too
much to heart:
Companies may create their own blogs for employees to address the public in an official capacity, though Sarno said if an employer encourages blogging for marketing purposes, the content will likely be strictly controlled. Blogging under such terms “is a tool for business. It’s not a tool for free speech,” he said.
you will wind up with posts that sound like substance-free marketing messages. Content control has its place, but it should be wielded with grace, not brute force.
Finally, let's take on the question of business reputation management. Let's put the disgruntled customers and indiscreet employees aside for a moment and look at the big picture. You know that economic downturn that started in back in 2007? Chances are that everything between then and now that has happened in the business world has done more damage to your company's reputation than anything that these perceived threats could have possibly done.
About a month and a half ago, the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion conducted a poll for the Knights of Columbus, seeking to get a snapshot of the public's view of businesses, and the picture was not pretty. Quoting from the K of C's press release
Among the American public, 76 percent believe that corporate America’s moral compass is pointed in the wrong direction, 58 percent of corporate executives agree; and a majority of Americans, and two-thirds of executives, gave a grade of D or F in ethical matters to the financial and investment industry.
The poll of 2071 adults and 110 high-level business leaders also showed that Americans believe personal financial gain and career advancement drive the business decisions of executives while concern for employees and public good seldom factors into corporate decisions.
Yep, all of those meltdowns, bankruptcies, compensation scandals, and bailouts have skewed public opinion against you, even if you didn't blow a cool million to redecorate your office or get a bailout check from the treasury. With 5.1 million people collecting unemployment checks do you think your business stands to gain any goodwill by canning an employee because you didn't give your 100 % approval to everything they might have written?
This is one of those times where a company has to look beyond its legal rights and think about whether its actions fit within a larger goal of survival. Be clear with your employees about expectations of conduct. Be fair and consistent with holding them accountable, but don't use that concern as license to rule with an iron fist. You can't afford it.