Corporate blogs and CEOs

I’ll admit it. I still have plenty of reservations about corporate blogs. Particularly those that involve the CEO. And particularly those that want to venture anywhere beyond marketing communications.

I wrote about this in April (Help wanted: chief blogger). I commented on an article in Advertising Age (no longer available online without a subscription) that talked about the growth of corporate blogs — now about 10 percent or so at Fortune 500 companies.

I’m all for communication — the more the better. And a blog in theory should be a step in the right direction. But in practice I’m still not sure — when it comes to publicly traded corporations and CEOs. Here’s why. First, writing a blog takes time. Something tells me that a CEO won’t stick with it. At that point it falls to the PR staff — and it’s an online newsletter. Second, disclosure requirements limit what you can say — and when.

Still — and here’s the twist — I’m going to give Jonathan Schwartz credit for taking a good shot at it. Schwartz is the CEO and president at Sun Microsystems and a dedicated blogger from what I can tell about him. Here’s the story.

Last Thursday Sun Microsystems reported disappointing earnings and announced a layoff involving as many as 2,500 employees. (Full disclosure: I’m a long-suffering Sun shareholder.) And Schwartz made the announcement with the usual corporate blather, as reported in The Times article.

“Our third quarter was a disappointing one,” Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s chief executive, said. “The U.S. economy presented Sun with significant challenges in the third quarter, masking our progress in developing nations and economies across the world.”

Can’t believe I used to write crap like that. As usual, I digress.

I figured Schwartz would have something more insightful to say on his blog. I checked Thursday night. And again Friday. Nada. Nada.

Then I kind of forgot about it until today. But looking for any excuse to take a break from grading student projects and ethics papers I figured I might as well take another look.

To his credit, Schwartz wrote an excellent post on his Jonathan’s Blog on Sunday, May 4. It’s a very detailed look at the company’s results and performance. I assume he wrote it himself. In any event, it’s well done.

And in a question-and-answer format, he wrote the following:

“Why does Sun’s CEO waste time writing that blog?”
Because I believe in providing clarity surrounding our strategy and operations – not just once a year in the Annual Report. I believe clarity behind our direction is useful for our shareholders, customers, partners and employees.

In good times, and in challenging ones.

Good for Jonathan Schwartz. If this is the model for blogs by other CEOs — then maybe I’m wrong. Maybe blogs will become another tool that enhances communication. Yet realistically — there are still a few hurdles to get over before everyone joins in the conversation here. Check out the ending to Jonathan’s blog:

Safe Harbor Statement

Jonathan’s blog contains forward-looking statements regarding the future results and performance of Sun including statements with respect to the effects of our restructuring plan, and expectations for deferred revenue. These forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties and actual results could differ materially from those predicted in any such forward-looking statements. Factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those contained in such forward-looking statements include: risks associated with developing, designing, manufacturing and distributing new products; lack of success in technological advancements; pricing pressures; lack of customer acceptance of new products; the possibility of errors or defects in new products; competition; adverse business conditions; failure to retain key employees; the cancellation or delay of projects; our reliance on single-source suppliers; risks associated with our ability to purchase a sufficient amount of components to meet demand; inventory risks; and delays in product development or customer acceptance and implementation of new products and technologies. Please also refer to Sun’s periodic reports that are filed from time to time with the Securities and Exchange Commission, including its Annual Report on Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2007 and its Quarterly Reports on Form 10-Q for the fiscal quarters ended September 30, 2007 and December 30, 2007. Sun assumes no obligation to, and does not currently intend to, update these forward-looking statements.

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be … lawyers.

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4 responses to “Corporate blogs and CEOs

  1. Hi Rob,

    Interesting post. I’ll be going back to re-read your Chief Blogger post as well.

    One thing – you might be limiting your assessment a bit by your view of a corporate blog. You say “a CEO won’t stick with it. At that point it falls to the PR staff” – I’m not sure this will be the case.

    Many large corporations are looking towards social media focused positions with responsibility for listening and engaging with customers. Likewise, many of the best corporate blogs feature product managers and individuals from various functions – not just CEO’s or PR staff.

    Cheers!

  2. Paull,

    Thanks for your comment. I’ve seen you mentioned on many blogs; I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to finally meet you.

    Actually, I hope I’m wrong about CEOs and blogging. But I’m looking at this based on personal experience. CEOs are busy. They have great demands on their times and schedules. They, for the most part, have the right idea and instincts about communication — but it becomes too much of a personal time commitment. Saying that — I haven’t been involved in day-to-day communications in about 10 years. Maybe there is a new generation of CEOs out there that will make this time commitment. If so, I am all for it. But if it is the PR staff blogging on behalf of the CEO — that doesn’t match my idea of what a blog should be. A personal conversation — and as I mention regarding Sun, that’s tough now because of disclosure requirements.

    I hope we can continue this and other conversations.

    Rob

  3. Great to connect with you Rob, I’m subscribed so rest assured I’m reading.

    My point is that ‘PR staff blogging on behalf of the CEO’ is only a narrow view of what a corporate blog can be.

    A corporate blog is not just a publishing medium to disseminate key messages. It’s more a conversation catalyst.

    At its best, a corporate blog can be a tool that breaks down walls between an organization and its publics and empowers a variety of employees to connect directly and build relationships with stakeholders.

  4. Paull,

    I absolutely agree with you. If I were managing a corporate communications function today I would argue for a blog (or blogs) for exactly the reasons you state. But I’m just not sure that a CEO of a publicly traded corporation can ever be totally involved in a conversation because of disclosure requirements. But saying that, Jonathan Schwartz appears to be doing OK with his blog — and I expect that early on he just said there would be things he couldn’t talk about/questions he couldn’t answer. And I may be wrong about CEOs losing interest and not writing their own posts. That’s something I’m hoping to do some research on this summer.

    And thanks for visiting. I look forward to talking with you more.

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