by Michael Fitzgerald

Tips and Advice for Writing a Corporate Blog

Jun 01, 200611 mins
IT Leadership

Blogging isn’t the same as writing a memo or a message in the corporate newsletter. And while it may not be as revolutionary as some make it out to be, there’s still value there. Blogs provide a quick way to publish on the Web and even create an online version of a watercooler discussion. If that appeals to you, here’s a piece on the basics of writing a blog.

Since you’re new to blogging (only a handful of CIOs blog) I’m writing this in the form of a blog to give you an example. Note that I’m writing in the first person. I’m also going to refer you to a lot of websites. Bloggers use links as a form of shorthand, so they don’t have to stop to explain what they’re talking about—a technology or a news story, for instance—and readers can click the link if they want to learn more.

To be honest, I don’t come to blogging lightly. It made my nose wrinkle for a num-ber of years. It looked like a reprise of the old Web community fad. That also promised to change the way people communicated, but its biggest impact was on how people gazed at their navels. It was also hard to see who would blog if they didn’t have an ego the size of Everest, and why anyone would read something that seemed to consist mostly of screeds, outbursts and rants, which inspired not rational discussion but “flogs” (as in flame blog posts). Even the best blogs once seemed to push vendettas more than agendas. But things have changed.

“It’s just a medium [for communication]” is what I was told by Margaret Mason, etiquette columnist at and author of the forthcoming book No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog.

That helped me stop overthinking blogs. They’re not a profound new means of expression. They’re just a tool—another arrow in the communications quiver. If this were a real blog, I’d keep things short and stick to one topic per posting. Here, I’ll cover three things: how to get started, how to navigate the blogosphere and a few final tips.

By the way, now that I’m blogging, I’m not going to change my personality. Anil Dash, who is a VP of professional services at Six Apart and has six (!) blogs, is one of several people who told me that I need to sound like me, or no one will take my blog seriously. He also warned me not to fall into the TMI (too much information) trap. “People got into trouble by feeling they should ‘out-candid’ each other,” Dash says. “That’s kind of a losing game.”

But blogs do need to have a point of view: yours.

How to Get Started

The “rule of three” is the idea that people like things that come in threes. It’s a good rule of thumb in writing—blogging is primarily writing—so the rule of three works well for it. Here are my three ground rules for blogging:

1. Know why you’re blogging. There are lots of reasons to blog. Peter Siegel, CIO at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, blogs to get input on potential technology directions. Will Weider, CIO at Affinity Health System and Ministry Health Care, blogs both to argue the conventional wisdom about IT in health care and to boost his profile. When Philip J. Windley was CIO of the State of Utah for 18 months between 2001 and 2002, he blogged to improve communications with his far-flung staff.

Good reasons all. Other reasons to blog:

* To establish your company, and yourself, as a thought leader on a subject

* Because you like to write

* To demystify your department

* To organize projects or topics without the clutter of e-mail

About the only bad reason to blog: “Don’t blog because it sounds cool,” says Debbie Weil, an online marketing and blogging consultant in Washington, D.C., and author of the upcoming The Corporate Blogging Book. She says an effective blog will have a clear focus.

2. Know your reader. No one wants to blog in a void. So you need to know who you would like to have read your blog, and why.

You might want to blog for your IT staff. Both Siegel and Weider decided to blog publicly instead of behind the company firewall to get extra input on their ideas.

On the other hand, if you’re writing to explain the mysteries of IT to the rest of the company, you might want to keep your blog behind the firewall. Your tone and topics can be less guarded that way. And the posts your blog receives will tend to be less rancorous because corporate bloggers are more likely to post under their own names. This keeps posts from getting unruly. In a public blog, a C-level executive may want to review posts, if only to keep out spam.

Blogs also can be written by more than one person. Six Apart’s Dash tells me that while everyone at his company has his or her own internal blog, these individual blogs are becoming less important. Instead, blogs are being organized around specific topics or even specific development projects, with multiple contributors. This makes sense to me.

3. Know the drill. You may be reluctant to blog because of the time commitment. Look at this comment from Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media, a publisher and conference producer: “Blogging is migrating towards this whole attention economy vein. It’s people who are effectively working on deadline to be the first to notice something. It really has become a very specialized job that you have to devote full time to. I can’t afford to do that, so I blog on things that matter to me. And sometimes I don’t do it for two weeks.”

Tim posts regularly on his public blog, the O’Reilly Radar. But he has four other contributors to ease the pressure on him. Numerous blog watchers told me it’s OK to post occasionally, as long as you’re up front about your likely frequency.

The main reason blogging is a time-sink is there’s no ghost-writing allowed. Witness George Clooney’s objection to a post presented by Arianna Huffington as having been written by him—Huffington says she had assembled a “sample” post that was approved by Clooney’s publicist.

Here’s how they do it at IBM: “The first thing we tell execs is they’ve got to be authentic,” says Christopher Barger, the blogging and podcasting communications lead at IBM. “You’re not writing a white paper” or selling the company message. “But don’t put stuff in your blog that you wouldn’t put in an e-mail or say at a client dinner,” he advises.

These strictures make it obvious to me why only one senior-level executive at IBM blogs, and that’s idea fiend Irving Wladawsky-Berger. He posts about twice a week, often based on his speeches or his business experiences (such as when he realized he couldn’t read his own blog while in China). Wladawsky-Berger’s job is to look for new innovations and market trends, so blogging creates a dialogue for him with readers and can effectively be a feedback mechanism for his ideas.

I’ll let you in on a little secret Debbie Weil told me: It’s best for C-level executives to blog for a few weeks in the privacy of their own computer, to see if they even have time for a post a week. You might try that, perhaps even cutting and pasting something you wrote in an e-mail to practice writing in an informal voice. You could also send a couple of potential blog entries to people you trust, to see if they think the tone works. But know that once you’re live, you probably won’t be able to test out your entries before posting them.

Next, I’ll talk about how not to wind up in The Wall Street Journal for all the wrong reasons.

Culture is everything for a blogger. Your blog needs to be yours, but it also can’t be too different from your corporate culture. That’s what I learned from Philip Windley, former CIO of the state of Utah, now associate professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He started blogging in May 2002 and thought the blog would be a good way to exchange ideas.

But state government is not as free-wheeling as tech firms. If Windley posted something about his interest in enterprise instant messaging, much of his staff saw it as a directive to begin deploying the technology, rather than an invitation to discuss the idea.

He also discovered the hard way that blogging can create miscommunication and hurt morale. Windley encouraged his staff to blog, and one of his managers posted an entry about why an e-mail outage happened. The post was strictly factual, but the manager’s staff felt betrayed by the publicity (other IT staff and some other government employees read it). Ultimately, that manager found it impossible to continue working with his staff and left his job. Oops.

To avoid these kinds of issues, Windley says, it’s important to say why you’re blogging in each of your posts, and to try not to say things that might generate calls from reporters.

Blog etiquette expert Margaret Mason advises executives to adopt the tone of their company in their blog. For a CIO at a youngish tech company, being very casual and hip might work. For a bank, street slang is off-limits.

Blogging isn’t formal, but at most companies, business casual doesn’t mean you can show up to the office in a tie-dye T-shirt, either. “Businesspeople treat blogging too informally,” I learned from Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts, writing consultant and author of Business Writing for Dummies. “It’s informal only in the sense that it’s easy to post information. It’s still a business form of communication.”

“I don’t think you can separate your opinions from your place of work,” Weider told me. “I’m an executive here, and what I say reflects on the operation.”

Weider calls his blog The CandidCIO, but he’s not candid about everything. He doesn’t comment about where he thinks his competitors are wrong. He does not ding his vendors. And he does not mention his staff. Those all seem like good guidelines to me.

But he doesn’t avoid controversy: When a vendor offered him an all-expense-paid trip for two to a World Cup game in Germany, he put it in his blog and named the vendor, Avaya. That caused a stir, and even some press coverage. Weider says their working relationship remains strong. Avaya, though, makes a point of no longer paying for lunch.

People do get fired for blog posts. In fact, it has its own slang term—getting “dooced,” named for blogger Heather Armstrong, who uses the pseudonym “Dooce” online, and was fired for satirizing her employer in her blog. Others who’ve been dooced:

* A Google employee who was critical of his employer

* A Web developer at Friendster who wrote about her work

* A librarian who blogged about copying music

Some Final Tips

* Keep it short. And skimmable.

* Get thick skin. Know that your blog will generate comments you might not want to hear. They might even be true. Be ready for them, and acknowledge them when it’s appropriate.

* Blogs are forever, or reasonably close to it. Remember that blogs are permanent and searchable. If your blog is public, it’s available via Google or Technorati or some other search site. I wouldn’t swear, or share my thoughts about religion or politics. Or the food in the cafeteria, as one of Lindsell-Robert’s clients did.

* Check grammar and spelling. Natasha Terk, a partner in Write It Well, an Oakland, Calif., writing consultancy, reminds me that sloppiness reflects poorly on me and my company.

* The rules can be broken. I call this Schwartz’s Law, after Jonathan Schwartz, the new CEO of Sun Microsystems.

More than one person has told me that Schwartz succeeds by breaking the rules. He manages to slash and burn his way through all the conventions—needling rivals like IBM, HP and Dell, chiding California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for using taxpayer money on something that can only be viewed in Windows Media Player, thumping his chest over Sun products, recounting a family vacation—and still get away with it. (It helps that Schwartz is a good writer.)

For most of us, blogs present a much smaller soap box. But they’re a useful platform, and one worth getting comfortable standing on.