All in Web/Tech

Nearly a dozen large companies have come together to form the Blog Council, a "professional community of top global brands dedicated to promoting best practices in corporate blogging." Founding members include Nokia, Dell, SAP, GM, Microsoft, Cisco, Accu-Quote, Kaiser Performance, Starwood Hotels, Gemstar-TV Guide and Coca-Cola

The news release announcing the creation of the council, headed by Andy Sernovitz (author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking), says the members-only group will function "as a collective voice in support of responsible, ethics-based corporate blogs.  Other issues the Council will address include:

  • How do global brands manage blogs in more than one language?
  • What do you do when 2000 employees have personal blogs?
  • What is the role of the corporate brand in a media landscape increasingly geared toward consumer-generated media?
  • What is the correct way to engage and respond to bloggers who write about your company?"

This is an interesting development. Perhaps the council will help other global corporations get beyond the 'Should we or shouldn't we blog?' stage.

Facebook_logo_2 After an online petition with 52,000 signatures, and some rumblings in other quarters, Facebook has apparently stepped  back from its controversial "service" called Beacon which allows advertisers to aggregate data about user purchases. (Disclosure . . . Blanc & Otus, a U.S. affiliate of my employer H&K, works for Facebook. But I don't. Further disclosure . . . I love Facebook even with its "is" status fault.)

As indicated in The Globe and Mail "The company will now guarantee that no information will be shared without users' consent, according to a statement posted yesterday on its site. Facebook made the changes after members signed online petitions.'Users will have clear options in ongoing notifications to either delete or publish,' the statement said."

For some, damage has been done. Over at Blognation USA, Mark Orchant wrote (the same day as The Globe and Mail news report) "And now there’s increasing evidence that Facebook Beacon, their ill-considered advertising engine (or is it their privacy invasion engine?) is potentially a new vector for so-called affiliate marketers, spammers, scammers, and other vermin to gain access to unsuspecting users. Worse, it turns out that protecting yourself from this new attack by trying to leave Facebook is no easy task." (See Jay Goldman's deconstruction of Facebook's javascript.)

I find something naive about the underlying expectation that the company Facebook -- and other social network organizations -- will not try to find ways to monetize their assets. They are social platforms AND businesses . . . and probably businesses first. Providing and maintaining a social network used by millions, keeping it lively, fresh and increasingly scalable, costs, well, a lot. There is nothing wrong with exploring the boundaries of commerce in any online platform and waiting to see if anything bites back.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that people are very protective about their social networks and only have so much tolerance for product pitches, even less for incursions on privacy and none for automatic opting-in approaches. The principle of 'permission' in online relationships is inviable.

Of course, the irony of social networks, like any network of individuals in a democracy, is that they are super tools for organizing dissent and opposition.  To Facebook's credit, it listened and acted appropriately.

Being in London, I am not sure if this news got much play elsewhere, but the UK and the EU will be imposing more stringent rules on fake blogs.

The new UK rules scheduled to come out in the next few months, and the result of the EU's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, are aimed at the type of online fakery where company representatives pose as ordinary consumers to provide fake product or service testimonials on consumer rating websites.

Two questions come to mind: Will the new rules cover astroturfing and if not specifically could they be interpreted that way? Why now when gadflies and watchdogs can so easily track the source of any online comment?

Now this is a subject to which I haven't given much thought and probably should.

Collin Douma of Radical Trust (the blog) and Social Media Group (the employer) poses a fundamental question abut sponsorship and social networks in a post: "How do sponsors get into this space and remain credible?" 

He apparently intends to answer the question in a session at a conference in Toronto on November 6, 2007 called Strategic Sponsorship Marketing; Canadian Summit. If I was there (I will be at the IPRA Summit in London -- And shouldn't we put a moratorium on the use of "summit" to describe a conference or workshop?), I would be tempted to ask "What should we advise if a sponsor wants to get into the space and isn't going to be the least bit credible being there?"

Maybe someone will ask it for me . . . or maybe Collin will?

Some communications and public relations miscellany of note:

  • Gary Schlee, who blogs here, is organizing a free "unconference" for corporate communications and Talk public relations people in Toronto. As Gary (a professor in Centennial College's post-graduate corporate communications program) writes, "In the spirit of unconferences . . . Talk is Cheap is free and features short presentations from registrants who will be sharing their expertise and experience with colleagues. The focus is social media (Web 2.0)"
  • The International Public Relations Association is holding its annual summit in London, November 5-6, 2007. There are a lot of top drawer speakers on the agenda including Larry Osai of the Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company, John Mickelthwait, editor of The Economist, and Margery Kraus, president and CEO, APCO Worldwide. I will be there in part to facilitate a roundtable discussion about social media and reputation building strategies. But I also plan to blog regularly during the sessions.
  • The well-known satirical blog Strumpette has been reborn under Brian Connolly as Furthermore, which promises to be even more scathing than its "accursed progenitor" to quote Samuel Beckett. Having been on the receiving end of a harangue from Connolly -- probably justified since I can sometimes  be intemperate in my praise of this new channel -- for a post that ostensibly smacked too much of social media evangelism, I am frankly delighted Connolly will keep Strumpette's spirit alive. There is always the need for sober (well maybe) criticism.

GreengiftslogoTomorrow, BC Hydro will launch a new Facebook application called Green Gifts. Developed by my friend Alexandra Samuel at Social Signal, it is a "way for the entire Facebook community to spread inspiration for conservation." The gifts are accompanied by a gift-appropriate "power smart" tip. Here's the tip when you send a pair of green running shoes: "Your feet are a built-in alternative transportation solution. Treat them well and they will last longer than your most carefully-tended car. Bonus features: zero greenhouse gas emissions and a smaller bum."

Not only does it have a great message, you can win prizes for sending the Green Gift app. Prizes include, a self-sufficient, hand-cranked LED lantern, a solar-powered battery/phone charger, an electricity consumption monitor and an iPod Nano with solar charger. The downside? Only residents of British Columbia are eligible. Damn.

App_3_2589550139_3948_2 These socially themed Facebook applications are a great idea in my view. Motorola (full disclosure . . . an H&K client) has offered the My Vibe Facebook application for a number of months. Its goal is to get young people to speak up when they are struggling and to help eliminate the sense of isolation teens can feel when they are facing problems.

Both are simple and effective methods of engaging with people around serious social issues to drive change.

Oh so cautiously some governments are testing blogging and other social media as a means of closer engagement with their constituencies.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office this week launched FCO Bloggers: Global Conversations, which features six bloggers ranging in seniority from an intern named Sarah Russell (with one post so far) to David Miliband, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the UK (three posts and a couple of video clips in only two days!).

Miliband explains the purpose of FCO blog this way . . . "At the heart this is the idea that diplomats need to reach out beyond governments to talk to people – at home and around the world. I want to explain to you the decisions we are making and what we are trying to achieve. And I want to hear from you what you think about what we're doing, what we could do better, and how we can solve problems which affect us all, such as conflict, climate change and poverty."

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has also started a blog with a mandate "to make the activities and publications of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner more accessible to Canadians, and to increase contact between the Office and Canadians interested about privacy issues and legislation." Employees within the Office are contributing posts."

It will be interesting to watch how long these blogs last or how soon (if at all) they degenerate into caution and restraint, which could make them boring indeed. One other comment: Seems to me that government officials have at least as much to lose as corporations and other organizations by going out on a cyberspace limb. So why such continuing caution among so many private and non-profit sector organizations about diving in?

It is common to see social media evangelists suggest the days of the corporate website are numbered. All the features that make Web 2.0 so exciting -- powerful collective intelligence, rapid linking, user-produced content, platforms that create communities of interest, task and vocation -- are declared an ominous signal for the traditional corporate web site. Jeremiah Owyang wrote some time ago that "The corporate website is an unbelievable collection of hyperbole, artificial branding, and pro-corporate content. As a result, trusted decisions are being made on other locations on the Internet." (phrasing which itself demonstrates familiarity with hyperbole).

Most of these commentators are thinking of the corporate website from a marketing perspective; that is, how to involve customers in dialogue about products. Jeremiah's kind of over-the-top evangelism is about marketing and does not take into a account any number of good reasons to use and maintain an energetic, interactive but distinctly company-centred, digital presence. Here are just two:

  1. Websites are a critical tool for effective issues management. Assuming a website has a content management system that allows for relatively fast and easy uploading, then it still has an extremely valuable raison d'etre . . . to tell a truthful and factual story about a company or organization from its perspective. That may seem self-evident. But it is especially valuable when a company is managing an issue or facing a crisis, situations in which truth and fact are not necessarily the province, or concern, of MSM, advocates or politicians.
  2. Information is now miscellaneously regrouped as needed by people as they look to learn about or understand issues. Information-rich websites, which host a point of view, can play an important role in forming opinion. This does involve a shift in thinking. Making something information-rich does mean a company or organization has to consider what receivers want or need to read about or hear not just what they want to tell them (which is where Jeremiah and my ideas overlap.

Of course corporate websites will have to migrate form and function to reflect new communication dynamics and new centres of conversation. But they have a place in the extended conversation that is the heart of the new issues management.

At the same time as a few more top-ranked companies are dipping their toes into corporate blogging -- Delta Air Lines (Under the Wing), Chrysler (Voices of Chrysler), and Kodak (A Thousand Words) (thanks to colleague Brendan Hodgson for noticing) -- the ever resourceful Strumpette points out that according to a WebTrends study ". . . there are plenty of business-blog skeptics in the U.S., as well. Less than 6 percent of the Fortune 500 and 2 percent of the Forbes 200 Best Small Companies blogged in April and June 2006, respectively. Bottom line: Most companies aren't blogging because they're not convinced it works and they think that there are too many associated risks."

First of all, the whole business of the "risk" in corporate blogging is over-stated.

There are a few high profile cases of corporate blogging foot-in-mouth disease. But senior executives as a breed aren't idiots and while some (a lot?) may write poorly they are sensitive to the impact of what they say on their customers, employees and markets. They are innately careful and that care will reduce risk. Corporate legal counsel may argue that silence rather than thoughtfulness is the best risk reduction strategy, but silence has never done much to build reputation especially when honesty and transparency are now expected corporate values. The risks of corporate blogging are certainly no greater than poor valuation of goodwill on a company's balance sheet.

Let's also be clear about what "works" means in the social media context.

Can a corporate blog sell more products, raise or defend share price, increase recruitment and retention, or better position the company with government. The jury is still out on that. But for the whole cohort of publics who are concerned, interested in or involved with a company's social behavior or personality, a corporate blog moves the trust needle even if only slightly. On the assumption that the whole blog isn't a lie (and if it is it won't last long) then it offers a deeper look into corporate character:it gives shape to the qualities that are usually touted in a company's vision and value statement: it makes conversations with new publics possible: it may create a community of interest or even a neighborhood of friends.

As Marc Andreessen wrote a couple of months ago "one of the best things about blogs is how they enable a conversation among people with shared interests."

I am not sure why companies -- and some PR agencies -- keep trying to sidestep transparency on the Internet.

You can fake it for a while, pretend that nobody will find out it is really you cleaning up your Wikipedia entry, or intervening in social networks, or commenting on a post. But you leave technology tracks, and you will be outed. And when you are found out, the mistake compounds exponentially. As the title of a post from futurelab says, "PR Disasters Lurk in Web 2.0 Chicanery".

How do you avoid being reputationally jammed? Be honest; be transparent; be open about who you are and why you are intervening.

It may be a faulty assumption, but I take for granted most companies recognize the value of a good reputation . . . or at least acknowledge the downside of a bad one. There is evidence to the contrary I grant, as some companies seem almost compelled to embarass themselves without regard to its impact on public trust, credibility with financial and industry analysts and market confidence. But I think most CEOs and corporate communicators recognize that being in command of organizational reputation at least has value as a means of managing market, social and financial risk.

But there are other, less heralded but equally potent, reasons why a company or organization's reputation is its most valuable intangible. Over the next few posts I will take a look at some of the less obvious reasons why, starting with . . .

Politician01_t_2 Idea One: Politicians and regulators care about the company they keep in public; they place generous stock in a company's character.

Being seen to be of sound organizational character in the minds of public officials means:

  1. You are a less likely to become a political or media football . . . or poster child for what's wrong with business (or the social sector) today.
  2. Their doors may be slightly more ajar should you have a regulatory or policy concern . . . but don't count on it if it is too controversial.
  3. They may consider consulting with you before making a public announcement that has an impact on your market, sector or business environment to confirm your support or opposition . . . although don't hold your breath.

Idea two to follow shortly!

While on vacation, I have been reading David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous (a tough slog for the first eighty-odd pages, but much more grounded and interesting after that). A chapter on 'Social Knowing' stands out for what it explains about Wikipedia's role in "delaminating of authority and knowledge" and how knowledge now has "no knower" per se.

The problem, though, is many people (danah boyd for one) trying to confront misinformation about their company or themselves in Wikipedia articles are finding it may not be striving as hard as it should to reach its goal of achieving a neutral point of view (NPOV) with its articles.

Weinberger says "Wikipedia provides the metadata surrounding an article -- edits, discussions, warnings, links to other edits by the contributors -- because it expects the reader to be actively involved, alert to the signs."

But in my limited experience, joining the conversation about an article when you are representing a corporate POV is not so easy (unless you are with the CIA or Vatican apparently). If, as Weinberger also says, "Authority now comes from enabling us inescapably fallible creatures to explore the differences among us, together", shouldn't corporate voices be able to expose weaknesses and errors, assuming they are speaking the truth and can prove it?

It would help if Wikipedia were more explicit about how an organization can correct polemic disguised as neutrality or misinformation as fact even if the correction is made by someone from the public relations department.

I was disappointed to be unable to attend Toronto's popular social media conference (MESH) this year although I had bought a ticket. (Business took me to Calgary for most of the week.) However, one of the signature benefits of the 'conversation' that is blogging is being able to turn to trusted observers for their take on missed events.

Doug Walker posted his notes on a couple of presentations by high profile speakers including Richard Edelman president of the eponymous public relations agency which has been both a leader and goat in exploring the use of social media strategies in corporate communications. Edelman comes across as a prescient thinker and a clear analyst of the new communications dynamic. Doug also summarizes a presentation by Mike Arrington, founder of TechCrunch. Here is what Arrington has to say about the way journalists are managing the world of citizen journalism . . . “Journalists lament the changes in communications. As they go through their death throes they are writing about the issue constantly. (They are) complaining as they go extinct.”

Maggie Fox of the Social Media Group took an interesting approach to reporting on MESH by 'twittering' her notes throughout the conference. The archive of her Twitter comments are available here. Not much substance, but lots of fun.

My colleague Meghan Warby, who blogs at 2nd Floor Living Without the Yard, decided not to post about the conference except to refer to her time spent as "geeking out" and to having found the opportunity to be "brilliant".

And I am still waiting for reports from Michael O'Connor Clark at Uninstalled and David Jones at PR Works.

Next year I vow to attend . . . not matter what!