Corporate Blogging: Getting through the First Difficult Days

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Fellow canuck Ian Ketcheson points out some nasty birthing pains being experienced by a corporate blog set up recently by the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority. In it, the Metro organization (and its bloggers / PR team) is taken to task on several issues including its security strategy and a recent post that was intended to give the employee-side view of the bad behaviour that they have to deal with on a daily basis.

At the same time, the Metro PR team also finds itself having to deal with a seemingly popular parody of its blog as well as the publication of the results of some investigative reporting by another blogger around the salaries being paid to the Metro blogging team.

A perfect little storm, wouldn’t you think? And one that I’m sure would impel many companies, if faced with such a public hurly-burly, to say “enough” and shut down the entire effort. And that would be wrong, for a variety of reasons, not least facing the wrath of those who would claim that Metro dipped it’s toes into transparency, and didn’t like it. 

That said, simply being seen to be ”transparent” is not a good enough reason to set up a corporate blog. It requires thick skin, and an acknowledgement that there will be a period where frustrated customers and others may use this vehicle to vent about any and all issues, not simply those that an organization chooses to discuss on their blog.

As one commentor states: “If you or your bosses are under the impression that you can control the direction of the conversation and still be effective in this endeavor, I have news for you, It is not going to work… if the conversation is not allowed to go where the readers want it to go, the conversation will move elsewhere and you will lose what little control you had.

The blogosphere appreciates the engagement, but you must understand, you cannot keep us at arms length either. If you and/or your bosses are not forthcoming with answers to our questions and in a timely manner, we will roast you. It is nothing personal, but we will not be denied either. Evasion and doubletalk won’t fly. I would suggest you don’t even try, the results won’t be pretty. We will be all up in your business. We are nosy, and we are relentless, and we have more than one source of information to draw upon. Lies will be found out.

As you stated before, METRO is a public entity, but in the past it has not acted like one, and this has built up a LOT of animosity amongst the Bloggers in town. You may well be walking into this with rose tinted glasses, not understanding the animosity you will be subjected to. I do sincerely hope you and this blog are not sacrificial lambs being tossed out to the angry hordes in order to give your bosses cover.”

It is, as Ian says, vital to both listen and respond – as, admittedly, the blog/PR team does attempt to do if you read through the comments. But as the commenter suggests, it also means that you do not simply cut and paste corporate verbiage – press releases or otherwise. Rather, you acknowledge, where appropriate, the legitimate concerns of respondents, the reasons why these issues exist in the first place, and the actions being taken to address them – right or wrong. In many instances, simply being seen to take the appropriate action (as well as acknowledging the concerns that initiated the action) will help to engender good will among those to whom you are communicating.

It also means never allowing the conversation to become personal despite the fact that you are now a “face” and “voice” of the organization and your words will likely be picked apart, critiqued, admonished, and mis-interpreted. Articulate, respectful, thoughtful responses and postings will always rise to the top even as the vitriol, offensive language and irrelevent commentary sinks to the bottom. At the same time, these comments can’t be camouflaged in corporate bafflegab and side-stepping spinnery.

More importantly, it means doing the same degree of homework that any communications activity would require – being prepared for when the conversation goes bad and anticipating potentially damaging questions and commentary, and having the proof points to substantiate any claims or messages that you are communicating.

And it means having the flexibility to let the conversation go in a direction that you might not have intended it. The same commenter goes on to say: “Usually, a blog post is not a complete self-contained story like it is in a newspaper. It is in  fact merely a stub of a story intended to start the conversation. The entire post, including the comments, are the story.  You are essentially saying to the world, “Hey, here is what I’d like to talk about and here are the bits I think are important, what do you think?” The last part is KEY. Without the feedback, this might as well just be another press release or newspaper article.” 

But to that point, and the point made earlier about having to give up control of the conversation to the bloggers, I would temper that assertion by saying that like any blog, an organization should have the right to define the parameters of the discussion to the extent that they are not seen to be ignoring legitimate concerns. If the topic of my blog is CSR, then I should be able to reserve the right to respectfully acknowledge comments that deviate from this topic yet not allow the conversation to get hijacked to such an extent that the original objective of the blog becomes irrelevant. That said, if the blog becomes inundated with concerns and criticisms around a given issue, then it becomes incumbent upon that organization to recognize that there may be a systemic problem that requires action/response via a similar or other channels, and that has to be acknowledged. The question is, did the Metro blog do enough to define some kind of manageable parameters?

Personally, I agree that some of the blog postings to date read too much like news stories versus providing a glimpse at the true “personality” of the organization… and I do believe that more could be done to point people to appropriate departments depending on their concerns and issues. But my suggestion (if needed) is to be patient, to let it adapt and evolve. I encourage the blogging team to continue to find their true voice, despite the rather rough ride they’re currently experiencing. Likewise, I would encourage the organization itself to give Mary (and possibly others) the leeway to both ask and respond to the tough questions. And keep responding – people may not agree with you, but they will appreciate that you’re listening.

5 Comments
12

Jan
2007

Ian Ketcheson

Great post, Brendan.  

I agree with you on the need to let the blog evolve, and the need to give their blogger a long leash to deal with tough questions.

As an example, we’ve seen great evolution of Dell’s corporate blog, and witnessed the interesting transformation of Jeff Jarvis from Dell critic to Dell hugger.

The "Inside the CBC" blog is an interesting example of how you can give someone a long leash and position your blogger as half-inside and half-outside the organization.  

Maybe the best model is as a sort of "ombudsblogger".

Of course, a better title for the post would have been: "Houston, you have some problems"

13

Jan
2007

Laurence Simon

Seemingly? We be muchly popular!

16

Jan
2007

Rorschach

I am the commenter referenced above. I am also one of METRO’s more vocal critics. METRO has the tools to do the right things, but the problem METRO has is that it is run by an appointed board and has no direct accountability to the public. The appointees only real qualification to serve would appear to be contributing to the right re-election campaigns. decisions are made without public input and often apparently without much common sense. Such as choosing to cancel a $1M/year contract for security guards, only to spend $16M for a suite of cameras. Meanwhile METRO has an entire police force which was formed specifically to serve the security needs of the transit system and instead they are running radar intercepts and sending officers over to Israel to learn how to be swat team members.

NOT what the organization is supposed to be doing.

I’ll be honest, I’ll feel vindicated if I can raise enough ruckus to get a substantive response, ANY KIND of substantive response out of METRO. And that would include killing off the blog, although that would not be an ideal outcome. At least with this blog, we have a pipeline with which to feed the discontent of the taxpayer into the darkened smoke filled chambers of power at the LeePee Brown Transit Edifice, which has become an echo chamber for the board. I don’t want that to go away. But on the other hand, if the board is not going to listen, it really is a moot point isn’t it?

And Laurence is right, The parody site would appear to get far more traffic.

16

Jan
2007

CrapHammer

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