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Two Approaches to Employee Blogs

May 21, 2008
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Technology and the Law, Policies and Procedures, Featured Article, Technology

If it sometimes seems that everyone in the U.S. has a blog, there’s a reason for that. Technorati, which covers the blogosphere, says it is tracking 112.8 million blogs currently, with 175,000 new blogs coming on line each day. Just as people blog about politics, entertainment, food and wine, and every intimate detail of their lives, they also blog about their employment—and their employers.

Meanwhile, businesses are starting to incorporate company-authorized blogs and other forms of social media in their branding and growth strategies. Once viewed with mistrust by management, employee blogs now are recognized by many companies as morale-building tools and public relations weapons (or shields, as the case may be). However, as with any new technology, the results have not always been positive.

This article examines the ways in which employee blogs have hurt and helped their employers, beginning with a story that offers a bit of both.

The ‘Patent Troll Tracker’
In May 2007, an anonymous blogger, "the Patent Troll Tracker," began posting comments about patent enforcement companies, which buy patents and then file infringement suits against various organizations. Maligned as "patent trolls," these companies, their attorneys and the lawsuits they file are controversial in the world of intellectual property law.

The Patent Troll Tracker’s scathing postings became popular and drew more attention, and near the end of 2007, his identity became very important to third parties who had become enmeshed in litigation over patent trolling.

Earlier that year, an attorney named Scott Harris resigned from his position at his law firm, Fish & Richardson, after the Patent Troll Tracker intimated that Harris was collecting and selling patents which were later purchased by "patent trolls" who eventually sued Fish & Richardson’s clients for patent infringement. Harris subsequently sued Fish & Richardson, which countersued Harris for various employment-related claims. Of keen interest to both parties was the Patent Troll Tracker’s true identity.

In December 2007, Harris’ attorney reportedly offered a $5,000 reward for anyone able to name the Patent Troll Tracker. Amid increasing speculation, the blogger revealed his identity in February 2008: He was Richard Frenkel, the director of intellectual property for Cisco Systems.

As a blogger, Frenkel was prolific. His postings drew the attention of many readers, including two Texas plaintiffs’ attorneys, who sued him and Cisco for what they claimed were defamatory comments in Frenkel’s blog. They alleged that Cisco knew about Frenkel’s activities online and encouraged them. Harris and Fish & Richardson, meanwhile, immediately began trying to set Frenkel for a deposition in connection with their litigation.

Frenkel, who claims he blogged on his own time, without the knowledge of his employer, was caught in several lawsuits at once.

Cisco was also pulled into legal disputes. Cisco, along with a number of other large technology companies such as Google and Microsoft, belongs to a group called the Coalition for Patent Fairness. This group has lobbied for legislative reform in the U.S. Congress that could make the filing of patent suits more difficult for plaintiffs.

In the weeks following Frenkel’s exposure, members of online communities speculated that Cisco knew about Frenkel’s blog and had supported Frenkel in a covert lobbying campaign for patent reform. These appearances were not helped by the fact that a number of Cisco employees admitted that they knew about Frenkel’s blog and that many of them even suggested blog topics to Frenkel.

Both Frenkel and Cisco denied these allegations, yet the unsavory impression remained.

After Frenkel revealed his identity, Cisco had several choices to make. It could have distanced itself from Frenkel and all his works by denying knowledge of his blog. It could have terminated his employment, and prohibited all of its other employees from maintaining blogs in which they comment on Cisco’s interests. Instead, Cisco took a more interesting approach by embracing employee blogging while setting a new tone of responsibility.

A new policy regarding employee blogs
Cisco’s official blog, called "The Platform," acknowledged the dilemma of employee blogging in a post on March 24, 2008:

"Our recent experiences have shown us that as corporate blogging becomes more prevalent, new questions arise about transparency and etiquette. Corporate blogging is an important vehicle for two-way dialogue and communications, and it is a vehicle we are committed to utilizing here at Cisco ...

"The company believes strongly in employees’ right to freedom of expression, online and elsewhere. At the same time, we expect our employees, when commenting on matters related to Cisco’s business, to exercise that freedom in a manner consistent with Cisco’s corporate values of transparency and integrity ...

"If you comment on any aspect of the company’s business or any policy issue the company is involved in where you have responsibility for Cisco’s engagement, you must clearly identify yourself as a Cisco employee in your postings or blog site(s) and include a disclaimer that the views are your own and not those of Cisco. In addition, Cisco employees should not circulate postings that they know are written by other employees without informing the recipient that the source was within Cisco."

Thus, Cisco publicly recognized that employee blogging is a feature of the modern workplace that is unlikely to pass as a fad, while at the same time laying down some realistic rules. There are still legal risks involved in taking such a stance (for example, it is not a complete shield against future disputes over the issue of whether an employee’s postings are in actuality the clandestine views of the company). But adopting a clear, written policy may ease the risk of future pitfalls.

Companies such as Cisco may recognize that employee morale and ideas can be boosted through blogs. Blogs foster communication among employees in different departments about the company’s products and procedures. Communication may lead to innovation, which may lead to increased productivity.

Consulting firm Melcrum surveyed communication executives employed by large global companies and found that 55 percent of them use blogs or planned to use blogs in 2007. A 2006 survey by Melcrum found that only 12 percent of respondent were using blogs at that time, and only 23 percent were planning to begin using blogs.

Perhaps this increase represents a response to their consumers’ increasing preference for online media. An online survey by the Society for New Communications Research, "Exploring the Link Between Customer Care and Brand Reputation in the Age of Social Media," found that 59 percent of respondent consumers regularly use social media, including blogs, to communicate their feelings about companies’ customer service. The industries reported to use social media most effectively were technology and retail, while insurance, utilities and health care ranked lowest.

Faced with an increasingly large community of consumers who are reaching out to companies online, members of management feel impelled to respond. An effective response is especially imperative because a consumer who has had a negative experience with a company now has a global forum in which to be heard. Employee blogs are one way in which companies are trying to connect with consumers and employees.

The next public relations frontier
Like Cisco, Sun Microsystems Inc. has also adopted a policy on employee blogging. Its policy, which is available on its Web site, is called "Sun Policy on Public Discourse" and has been in place since 2004. The public relations benefits of employee blogging are acknowledged upfront:

"Many of us at Sun are doing work that could change the world. We need to do a better job of telling the world. As of now, you are encouraged to tell the world about your work, without asking permission first (but please do read and follow the advice in this note). Blogging is a good way to do this."

The policy addresses key issues about employee blogging in a way that is direct and concise. In other words, it is user-friendly. Company policies often are not effective if they go on for pages in an attempt to address every possible situation that could arise.

Instead of using a long, detailed policy, Sun Microsystems highlights some key points. The theme of the policy is judgment. It tells employees that it’s OK to talk about their work, but it is not OK to post the company’s confidential or financial information. It includes a link to the company’s policy regarding proprietary and confidential information, which is generally a good practice to encourage employees to actually read the policy. A policy that is kept at an employee’s fingertips is more likely to be read than one that is not.

The policy also reflects that employees have an obligation to represent the company well, though it does not suggest that employee blogs are pre-approved for content. The policy allows for criticism, but requires finesse of its bloggers: "Saying ‘Netbeans needs to have an easier learning curve for the first-time user’ is fine; saying ‘Visual Development Environments for Java suck’ is just amateurish.’ "

In addition to judgment, the policy devotes equal time to the form that blogs take. Mindful of the fact that form is important in the blogosphere, the policy asks employees to use spell-check and suggests that they seek advice about design.

Predictably, not all of the employee blog posts are flattering to the company’s product. This, however, is a fact that helps support the blog’s credibility as a forum for open discussion about the company and its products. As the company’s policy states, "By speaking directly to the world, without benefit of management approval, we are accepting higher risks in the interest of higher rewards."

Your company’s blog policy
The first guideline regarding an employee blogging policy is simple: have one. This article has only described the position of two companies regarding blogging. Every company differs in its outlook, but virtually all the employees of each company spend a lot of time on the Internet. Many are bloggers in their free time, and possibly on company time. Your company should consider how to address blogging before a negative situation arises.

The policy should be written and distributed to your employees for their review, regardless of their stature in the company’s hierarchy. It is a good practice to require your employees to sign and date an acknowledgement that they understand the policy, and keep the signed document in the employee’s personnel file.

Ideally, a blog policy should address the company’s expectations regarding blogging and the use of other social media in clear, direct terms. If your company sponsors an authorized blog, the terms of usage for that blog should be spelled out. The company should consider whether employees are permitted to post on their own time or the company’s time, and it should take into account the possibility that hours spent by employees who are expected to post to the blog as part of their responsibilities probably will be considered "hours worked" and they should be paid accordingly.

If your company does not maintain an authorized blog, the blog policy should address in clear terms the company’s expectations regarding disclosure of the employees’ identities when commenting on the company’s interests.

A good blog policy also should include a prohibition against language that could be considered offensive or harassing. Employees often do not seem to realize that statements made by them in their blogs (particularly in personal blogs) can be read by anyone, including their co-workers and their managers. Negative comments about other employees should be banned. The company may want to consider how to handle negative comments about their competitors as well.

Any policy, including a policy about blogging, should be reviewed by the company’s attorneys before implementation. When in doubt, management should contact counsel to determine whether they are in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

Workforce Management Online, May 2008 -- Register Now!

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