Categories: Trust and reputations
14 July 2009
Corporate blogging: now it’s personal?
I’ve been discussing corporate blogging, authenticity and trust with Neville Hobson, one of the UK’s leading “social media” commentators. I do hope you will click through to Neville’s blog and follow it in more detail, but first, here’s a brief summary of the issues at stake.
The issue is: should corporate officers blog and if they do is it right that someone else writes their material? I say that corporates should either avoid blogging, or if they do it it’s best to get a professional on the case.
Here’s the detail. I believe that all corporate utterance is collegiate, not personal. We should not expect that a corporate voice is speaking personally. To that extent, one should steer corporate people away from the appearance of purely personal speech (ie, in blogs) because it’s a falsity. But if there is corporate blogging, then one has to accept that it has a corporate mindset and spin (unless it stays bland and covers nothing much). Corporate blogging isn’t personal and PRs might as well get involved, and probably should.
I think Neville’s point is only a little different. He believes (and I rather agree) that a blog is a personal thing in a special way (it is – as it were – a hand-written note) which is different to a speech (which might – as it were – be a typewritten thing produced by a committee). Thus Neville insists that it is wrong for a CEO to have a blog but delegate it. But Neville thinks that a CEO, say, can speak with a personal voice and that his utterance is personal not corporate at that point. And I think Neville believes that the corporate and the personal can be aligned.
The difference between us may be that I think that corporations (and institutions) should steer clear of pretending that they are people and have personalities that are free of corporate ties. They have qualities, and even aspirations, but these are group things. I resist their becoming too chummy, and so I resist their blogging and tweeting as if they are something they are not; I want to keep the corporate voice authentic. Corporates should be too formal to be capable of the mateyness involved in the ’social media’ world – except as part of transparent marketing.
The David Brain “I was muzzled” experience will be faced by any CEO as soon as the subject matter gets sensitive – political issues; product recalls; we’re sorry about this or that mess etc. The Brendan May “I watch my words because I fear for my future” remark is also one that will strike a chord with many bloggers.
Moreover, these two men are leading PR professionals. I admire them for making transparent the constraints under which they work (they’re sending us a message) as a result of working for corporate bodies. Their way is the way to build trust because it is authentic, honest and transparent.
Moreover, one of the things I’ve learnt from my experience is that the last thing any corporation needs is a loose cannon.
Well – yes but, no but. Organisations clearly have a culture which in large part derives from the people within it. The “way we do things around here” is the result of corporate rules and regulations to some degree, but it isn’t just what you do, but how you do it. That direction and essence comes very often from the top. So I don’t believe you can really separate the personal from the corporate at the highest levels. A CEO isn’t a faceless automaton, who needs a PR person to guide their every utterance – let alone write it for them. You can’t monitor their every word in the real world, so why imagine you can online? Yes, you can write speeches, but communications isn’t really rhetoric – it is the conversations that these people should be having with key stakeholders all the time. That means customers, suppliers, politicians, investors, employees, even some key media – without being babysat by PR.
But, would I encourage a CEO to blog or twitter themselves – probably not. Would I “ghost” this for them – even less likely. Unless the CEO has the personality and self-discipline to be credible and able to identify the right time to talk and the time to be more discrete, I wouldn’t be advising they open themselves up to online 24:7 scrutiny.
Many CEOs are born communicators – indeed, they are and should be the chief reputation officer – and although they can consult with PR as strategic advisors and wordsmiths, they shouldn’t t need to be told exactly what to say. Frankly any CEO who is such a poor communicator to be a loose cannon deserves the exposure of social media – you wouldn’t accept them being poor at maths (although many appear to have been). So let’s get rid of rubbish communicators – if PR can’t help counsel or train, why hide their failings in this key area.
Ultimately though, I think the key is having a cross-organisational social media strategy. So it may be appropriate for the CEO to be leading communications and there are times when hearing it straight from the top, without verbal bodyguards is correct. There are other times when engineers, designers, customer relations or other functions should be communicating.
Of course there are constraints on communication, but anyone who doesn’t think before they open their mouth or start typing shouldn’t be trusted to go to their local pub – walls have ears too you know!!
Heather, we’ve been through a period in which celebrity CEOs thought it was all about them. They thought they defined it all, and they rewarded themselves accordingly. Now the time has come to bend the stick the other way; toward a sense of corporate responsibility. Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross is sharp on this here: http://reputationxchange.com/2009/07/11/celebrity-ceo-reputation/
That said, as always there is much sense in what you say, and CEOs do remain chief reputation officers.
The essence of a company or corporation is that it exists entirely separate and apart from its owners – be they directors or shareholders. Corporate policy evolves through the group decision-making of a board of directors. Information then filters down through formal channels of command. The very philosophy of a corporation is the antithesis of the individualism represented by blogging.
Naturally, PR professionals must be conversant with the advantages of communicating messages through the latest techniques such as tweeting and blogging but they should be aware of the limitations. A public already angry about the huge salaries and rewards enjoyed at the top are going to be twice as annoyed if they think they are communicating their displeasure directly with the boss man and then find out the answers are coming from a corporate minion.
Finally, several companies have experienced the disadvantage of building a personality cult around their chairman only to have the corporate star inconsiderately drop dead.
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