When Dell Computers started getting reports of laptops exploding in flames last summer, Lionel Menchaca took the heat - from his own legal team.
As the Texas-based computer maker's chief blogger - officially the Dell Computer digital media manager - he'd done the corporately unthinkable and posted a video from Osaka, Japan, of a Dell machine bursting into flames at a conference.
"Our legal people and others were e-mailing and calling and asking me: 'What are you doing? This is bad. You can't do that,' " Menchaca says of his post on the Direct2Dell blog last August. "But I said: 'This is what blogs are about. Everything has changed. We have to be transparent and honest. People are talking about this, they're posting these images, we can't ignore it. We have to deal with it directly.' " With the backing of founder Michael Dell, Menchaca weathered the internal storm and, as it turned out, won accolades not just from Dell customers, but from the business community over how the company managed to stickhandle around a disastrous public relations event.
The blog became Dell's prime tool to communicate what it was doing, how it would handle recalls and what it knew about the problems almost as soon as the executive team managing the issue itself knew. In doing so it eclipsed Apple Computers, which stumbled when confronted with the same problem at the same time.
|Photo courtesy of Market2World|
|Market2World CEO Nathan Rudyk says a company blogsite is a big step toward a company gaining an industry profile.|
That's the power of a corporate blog.
In the age of Web 2.0, it's no longer enough just to have a website, says Nathan Rudyk, CEO of Market2World, an Ottawa firm specializing in helping tech startups gain a profile.
"You have to blog and there are three good reasons," Rudyk says. "One is thought leadership, to insert yourself in a conversation. Two is search-engine optimization and three is internal communication."
He cited a client, Marketcircle, a respected Mac developer in Toronto, whose CEO Alykhan Jetha started blogging about how the iPhone might look and work long before it was released.
"It just radiated," says Rudyk. In reaction to a posting, one of his staff made an iPhoney simulator that showed how applications might work on a real iPhone. In one day they had 35,000 unique visitors.
A search-engine optimization strategy using key words in the titles and first few paragraphs also grabs the attention of search engines such as Google.
It can help push a corporate blog to the top of the list, he says, and is the second reason: Getting noticed.
Finally, says Rudyk, it's a way to make C-level executives accessible both for their employees and their clients and investors.
"A CEO's blog on the Intranet can kill off water-cooler rumours about things like layoffs or address difficult issues facing the enterprise," he said. "It replaces townhall meetings."
It's the latter factor that pushes Sun Microsystems president and CEO Jonathan Schwartz to blog, as does most of his executive team.
Granted, it's unusual for the chief executive of a company with US$13.1 billion in annual revenue and 38,000 employees globally to blog, but in Schwartz's world it's merely an extension of the corporate culture.
To his chagrin, he's also become the poster boy for blogging CEOs, because he uses his blog to maximum effect: Evangelizing Sun Micro's products, innovations and services; engaging his audience with his thoughts on being the CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation; apologizing for the company's screwups from time to time; engaging in a public argument with Linux creator Linus Torvalds over the direction of Sun Micro's open-source commitments; or just keeping his staff updated.
"I use this format because it works for me, allows me to talk to a diversity of constituents and a blog is more affordable than the daily global townhalls it supplants," he wrote in mid-July.
"But I'd love it if we one day eliminated the term 'blogging' from the web lexicon (and that we stopped pursuing 'CEOs who blog'). CEOs who have cellphones aren't 'cellphoners,' those who have e-mail accounts aren't 'e-mailers,' those who give interviews on television aren't 'TVers' - they're all leaders using technology to communicate.
"Communication is central to leadership - using words, written or spoken, to articulate strategy, guide organizations, engage in dialogue, and ... lead. Leading two or 200,000, you can't do it without communicating. Using technology just leaves more time for everything else."
Other high-profile executives bitten by the blog bug include Randy Tinseth, vice-president, marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Seattle (boeingblogs.com/randy) and hotel czar Bill Marriott (www.blogs.marriott.com).
But while Jim Estill, CEO of Synnex Canada, an IT supply-chain services company (NYSE: SNX) may not have that lofty brand profile, he also blogs to boost his company's visibility.
He sees his blog at jimestill.com as an effective communications tool both inside and outside the company, adding it drives sales because the overall effect is to humanize him to both employees and to clients. "It's easier to do business with a guy you know."
Like most high-level corporate bloggers, it's not all about business.
"Some 20 per cent of my readers are my staff, up to 40 per cent clients, say 10 per cent are suppliers and the rest general public," he says.
"So I include about 15 per cent personal contact because you have to humanize it, because that's what people want, and 80 per cent business, because that's the value," says Estill.
The topics don't always have to be about business: Montreal's Sass Peress, CEO of ICP Solar, which develops, makes and sells solar-energy systems, has blogged about whatever is on his mind at sassperess.com for the last two years.
"It's a public place to say thank you, to look at what's right and wrong with our industry. But it's me. I don't blog through a lawyer," he says. "It has to be thought-provoking. At the end of the day, what I want to do is create a face for this industry and an understanding in everyday people. It's simply another way to create a personality."
The value of blogs to Peress and others is that it's a two-way street. Readers are free - and encouraged to respond - with their thoughts on the issue at hand.
U.S.-based author Debbie Weil (debbieweil.com) wrote one of the definitive takes on the subject, The Corporate Blogging Book, and also hosts a radio show that argues corporate blogs are the marketing tool of our age, a better way to reach an audience than the traditional press release or business wire announcements.
"It's trendy for CEOs to blog, but it's not true that every CEO needs to have a blog," says Weil. "The prerequisite is passion, commitment and a writing ability.
"If you can write a coherent e-mail, you could be a reasonably good blogger."
Ghost blogging - a corporate communications person who writes pensive missives under the boss's name - is a slippery and dangerous slope, warn Rudyk and Weil.
As Rudyk points out, ghost blogging defeats the entire mandate of blogging, to be transparent and express honest opinions.
At a conference earlier this year, Schwartz was asked how he found the time to blog given the burden of responsiblities. Why not get someone else to write it for you?
"Absolutely not," he shot back. "People will know right away. You have to write it yourself."
Honesty, integrity and transparency, he went on to say, are keys to a blog - any blog.
He echoed these words on his own blog in July, when a CEO of an unrelated company admitted to posting 1,000 comments anonymously about a rival he wanted to acquire on a stock-market chatsite.
"Authenticity is core to leadership," Schwartz wrote in remarking on the incidents, "and the currency of our industry. So I doubt he advanced his agenda."
You don't have to be Sun Microsystems to set up and maintain a blog, Rudyk says, noting the costs are minimal but the benefits exponentially greater.
"It costs, what, $200 for a single-seat copy of WordPress?" he said. "And maybe a couple of weeks to set it up. Total cost is $2,000, even if you bring in a developer."
For those CEOs who are time- or word-challenged, he advocates a team approach.
"In startups, the CEOs are usually passionate and very close to the business, and they will and can blog," he said.
"Otherwise we have a team approach. To create a team you go high and low, from your IT people to your C-level to find people interested in blogging. Start with four or five people, teach them how to blog and simulate it inside the company.
"Then, when you've got five or six blogs going, it takes the pressure off the CEO and the expectation for everyone is just to post a blog once a month. Once you start blogging though, and you have other smart people around you, you create a blogging culture and people start to talk. Pretty soon you identify a star blogger on your team and that person becomes your voice."
Making that first leap of faith can be the biggest challenge, says Toronto entrepreneur and business consultant Evan Carmichael (evancarmichael.com).
"The challenge in big companies is getting through the legal and marketing departments who want to see everything," says Carmichael, noting there are other hurdles as well. "Sometimes employees don't want to take responsibility for a blog because it's not their regular job, it's an add-on which they're not being paid for and, if they write something controversial, it could be a career-limiting move."
Getting a blog policy in place can go a long way to soothing those fears, Carmichael says.
Rudyk agrees there's an element of risk - especially among the "professional worriers" in the legal and marketing departments.
"It's scary, yes, intimidating if you haven't done it before," he says. "Now that communications moat around the company has been filled in and people - customers - can walk across it and you're actually having a conversation with your customers."
He also supports making talking blogs, using a feature from talkr.com that converts text to audio.
"For most people, their screen time is maxed out," Rudyk says. "Talkr makes a blog into a podcast so people can download and listen on the bus, train, jogging or driving home."
As both Menchaca and Weil stress, it's not enough to write - you must listen.
"It can't be like talking to a brick wall," says Menchaca. "It's interactive."
And it's often about taking a risk.
In addition to posting the video of the flaming laptop, more recently Menchaca went even further, blasting his own legal department for suing a consumer advice website because a former Dell employee had posted "inside" tips on how to negotiate the best deal for Dell computers at one of their in-mall kiosks or online.
The legal action, not the original posting, which probably would have gone unnoticed by most, drove the story to massive proportions on the web.
"We blew it," wrote Menchaca, noting the legal beagles were being muzzled. "There were better ways we could have handled that."
Has the blog strategy paid off? Menchaca says at the outset in 2006, about 48 per cent of blog postings and responses about Dell were negative. Today, that's down to 24 per cent.
It's not the kind of hard-core metrics that will win a showdown at budget time with the chief financial officer, but it's a positive that Menchaca takes as a win and a simple strategy almost any company could copy with similar results.
(Ian Harvey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)