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Blog rules: Best practices to keep your corporate reputation intact

With one new blog created every second, the hype surrounding blogging is understandable. Everyone, it seems, is blogging.

According to the 2006 Workplace E-mail, Instant Messaging & Blog Survey from American Management Association (AMA) and The ePolicy Institute, 8% of U.S.-based organizations operate business blogs. Of that number, 55% operate external or "facing out" blogs to communicate with customers and other third parties. Another 48% have established internal blogs to enhance employees' communication with one another. Even CEOs are diving into the blogosphere, with 16% using blogs to build trust-based relationships, polish corporate reputations, promote social causes and accomplish other professional goals.

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Without a doubt, the blog is an electronic communications powerhouse that is likely to have a greater impact on business communications and corporate reputations than email, IM and traditional marketing-oriented Web sites combined. Far from an "emerging" technology that doesn't yet warrant employers' time and attention, blogging is here now, it's here to stay, and it is rapidly -- and profoundly -- changing the face and voice of business communications.

A skillfully written, content-rich business blog can help organizations position executives as industry thought leaders, build brand awareness, facilitate two-way communication and accomplish other important business goals.

An organization without an external blog program may risk losing position, market share, reputation and sales to tech-savvy competitors who have already recognized -- and tapped into -- the power of the blogosphere. That does not mean, however, that business blogs are necessary or appropriate for every organization.

Blogs pose unprecedented risks to business

The casual, conversational, anything-goes nature of the blog is what makes it so appealing to blog writers and readers. It's also what makes blogging so potentially dangerous to business. Savvy business owners and executives must learn how to strategically and successfully manage the blogosphere today or risk potentially unpleasant and expensive consequences tomorrow.

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The best advice: Carefully evaluate the potential benefits -- and assess all the costly and time-consuming risks -- before leaping into the blogosphere.

To that end, here are 10 best practices-based tips from my new book Blog Rules: A Business Guide to Managing Policy, Public Relations, and Legal Issues.

Ten blog rules to help keep you in business and out of court

Blog rule No. 1: The strategic management of blogs or any other electronic business communications tool begins with the establishment of written rules and policies governing usage and content.

Whether you operate blogs internally for employees' eyes only or externally for customers and others to read, it is essential to establish blog rules and policies to help manage risk and enforce employee compliance.

Blog policies may not be required by law, but they certainly can help keep your company out of legal hot water. Limit liability by implementing comprehensive blog rules and policies that address content, language, confidentiality, personal use, record retention, regulatory rules, disciplinary action and other key issues.

Blog rule No. 2: A business blog opens the organization up to potential disasters. Risks include the loss of trade secrets, confidential information and intellectual property; negative publicity, damaged reputations and public embarrassment; workplace lawsuits alleging copyright infringement, defamation, sexual harassment and other claims; court sanctions, legal settlements and regulatory fines; and lost employee productivity.

High-profile email gaffes have triggered everything from tumbling stock prices to million-dollar regulatory fines to billion-dollar jury awards to media feeding frenzies. Why assume blogging will not exact an equally high toll on the business community?

Put blog rules and policies in place today to help prevent costly and protracted blog-related disasters tomorrow.

Blog rule No. 3: Management, technology and the legal system have not yet caught up with the potential benefits and risks of business blogging.

According to a Forrester Research Inc./Proofpoint Inc. survey, 57% of employers are concerned about employees exposing sensitive company secrets on blogs. No wonder. More than 50% of bloggers surveyed by Edelman and Technorati Inc. admit to writing about their companies, products or employees at least once a week.

Loss of trade secrets is just one of the potentially devastating risks blogging brings to business. In spite of the risks, however, business has been slow to adopt blog-related rules, policies and procedures to help strategically manage employees' blog use.

According to the 2006 Workplace E-Mail, Instant Messaging & Blog Survey, only 7% of employers have established policies governing employees' business blog use. On a more positive note, 17% of organizations are taking advantage of technology tools to block employee access to external blog URLs, where employees might be tempted to waste time surfing or contribute comments damaging to the organization.

Blog rule No. 4: Treat blog posts and comments as business records. Be sure blog business records are retained, archived and readily available to courts or regulators in the event of a workplace lawsuit or regulatory investigation.

On company-sponsored blogs, employee writers and third-party commenters may be creating electronic business records that the company is obligated to formally save and store. In spite of legal and regulatory obligations, however, a scant 3% of organizations retain blog business records.

In the event of a workplace lawsuit, blog posts may contain evidence that will be sought by your legal counsel or the opposition. Your organization's decision to retain and archive blog business records -- and your subsequent ability (or inability) to produce subpoenaed documents -- will be carefully scrutinized by the court.

AMA/ePolicy Institute research shows that 24% of companies have had employee email subpoenaed and another 15% have gone to court to battle lawsuits triggered by employee email. The inability to produce subpoenaed email contributed to a $1.45 billion jury award against one company in 2005, and a $29.3 million verdict against another organization last year.

Expect blog business records to play an equally significant (and expensive) evidentiary role in the near future.

Blog rule No. 5: Use the establishment of your blog program as an opportunity to review all written electronic policies. Update (or create) email, instant message, Internet, intranet and blog policies based on the best practices detailed in Blog Rules.

To date, 2% of employers have fired (or "dooced," in blog parlance) employees for inappropriate blog content -- including offensive posts on employees' personal home-based blogs, reports American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute.

Follow the lead of the 7% of institutions that have implemented rules to control the content employees may post on their own personal blogs. Make sure employees understand that a policy is a policy -- regardless of the technology used. Let bloggers know that a violation of the company's ethics rules, code of conduct, blog policy, harassment/discrimination guidelines, or any other policy will result in disciplinary action -- up to and including termination.

Copyright 2006, Nancy Flynn. This article is excerpted from Blog Rules: A Business Guide to Managing Policy, Public Relations, and Legal Issues by Nancy Flynn (Amacom 2006). For information about The ePolicy Institute's training & speaking programs, consulting services, books or other products, contact Nancy Flynn at nancy@epolicyinstitute.com.

This was first published in September 2006

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