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Are companies going to the blogs?

With the proliferation of blogs, should we take them seriously, and how will they impact PR/corporate communications? Blogging is at an early stage of development and, like the early days of the Internet, predictions about its impact need to be taken with caution. However, although websites were initially viewed skeptically, they now form part of the formal armory of integrated corporate communications tools.

Web logs, or blogs, offer companies new opportunities to promote themselves and increase open, interactive communication but they can also be the source of PR nightmares.

There is much hype and over exaggeration surrounding blogs and their potential. Some commentators have made extreme statements that blogging may herald the death of traditional public relations. But others are more cautious. Robert Scoble, an official blogger for Microsoft, does not believe that blogging marks the beginning of the end of corporate communications. Jonathan Schwartz, number two at Sun Microsystems, a large computer-maker, who has his own blog, is also circumspect. "It's not the end of PR but the end of the old PR department," he says. Bruce Lowry pr boss at Novell, says he can imagine blogs replacing press releases within 10 years. Clearly, nobody yet knows how corporate blogging will evolve (The Economist, 12 February 2005).

Blogs present a risk in corporate communications because people can be too free in what they say given the immediacy, irreverence and spontaneity of the medium. However, if blogs are just another channel for sanitised corporate rhetoric or executive ego they will end up like most corporate house journals and websites.

Blogs are essentially online journals. A weblog is a web site that contains "posts" or articles that are displayed in chronological order. These posts are typically a mixture of thought, observations and links to other items of interest on the web. There are an estimated 10 million blogs worldwide, a number predicted to grow exponentially. (But the figure includes many blogs that are no longer updated or read). According to a Business Week article, "Blogs will change your business", about 40 000 new blogs are popping up daily. Blogs range from the personal, special interest, commercial (for products, issues and trends) and internal for creating employee interaction, sharing and learning.

Many companies, especially in the United States and Europe, have started to turn to weblogs to promote products, increase internal conversations, and even give voice to their companies through CEO weblogs. More open communication is a corporate mantra but weblogs are so transparent and immediate that they can create potential problems.

Some companies have fired staff who use their blogs to attack them. One well-reported case involved an employee of Google, Mark Jen, who started blogging about his first days in the Googleplex, and griped about Google's health plan being less generous than his former employer's - Microsoft. Two weeks later, Google fired the 22-year-old.

Customers have used the blogosphere to trade stories about Verison Wireless. They complained about Motorola's high-end V710 mobile phone. Verison found itself conducting a crisis-management exercise in full public view (Financial Times, 7 February 2005).

Apple Computer is suing a student for allegedly posting details of products before they were launched.

Some company executives have started blogging too. Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of GM, has launched his own FastLane blog. Jonathan Schwartz, head of Sun Microsystems, is another prominent blogger. Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, the German investment bank, has set up about 120 internal blogs. All employees are free to contribute to the blogs.

Blogging requires an open culture to be effective. Leaders can communicate directly with employees, customers, suppliers and investors. However, it is difficult for executives to write freely, particularly at listed companies where they are legally required to publish significant information to all investors at the same time. Some editorial control may be inevitable on certain topics such as share prices or internal company strategy. Bloggers also need to be aware that they are in the publishing business and are subject to the same legal constraints as any other media.

Blogs are an important source of information for journalists. A University of Connecticut poll showed that eight in 10 journalists read blogs, according to a Reuters report (16 May 2005).

As the blogging story unfolds, corporate communications and public relations practitioners need to be proficient in the pros and cons of blogs as a new form of possible mainstream communications. They should be able to advise companies about in what circumstances blogs could be most effective for communication. They need to know what is being said about their companies or clients through blog monitoring services and how to get published on blogs to provide counter arguments. In crisis situations they must have damage-control strategies.

So far in South Africa blogs seem to be taking off slowly in companies but those who don't keep track or get involved will likely learn the hard way.

In the early days, corporate web sites promised a new and open interactive form of communication. However, hierarchies remain strong. Some corporate web sites are interesting professionally for jobseekers, potential suppliers, customers, investors and analysts. But many web sites seem to have been given the "kiss of death". Much of the content is still electronic corporate brochureware "puffed up" or sanitized.

Blogs, the new kids on the media block, hold much potential for open and honest communication, with necessary prudence. But it remains to be seen whether companies will use blogs to engage meaningfully with stakeholders to create true mutual understanding and fast and effective interactive communications or fall to mere clumsy hidden persuasion.

About John Bradfield

John Bradfield is a communications practitioner. He previously wrote for newspapers and business magazines. For further information, please e-mail: .

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