Depending on which side of the fence you were on, the conversation was either about the increasing importance and value of the read/write web, or it was about the potential dangers of having bloggers on your staff, and generally questioning the relevance of blogging.
Obviously, as a blogger, I took a healthy interest. As an internet consumer (mmmm. packety.) I know that I am innately more trustworthy of a company that is prepared to openly blog about stuff. In fact, it's becoming increasingly evident to me, that in the web 2.0/new media/ future of connected clichés, the only way you will be able to prosper as a business is by adopting this corporate motto:
My company will endeavor not to suck at what we do.
This isn’t exactly news. It’s pretty obvious that the best way to avoid bad press, or bad opinions of your organization, (and word can really get around nowadays), is by always doing your best to provide your product or service the best way you can. If that's always your intention, you're well on the way to success.
On the other hand, if your intention is to try to swindle somebody, the blogosphere will absolutely eat you. Sony is hanging it’s head in shame after Mark Russinovich’s blog exposed it’s plan to secretly install ‘security software’ (spyware) on unsuspecting users of CDs (full story at wired). It only took 14 days of uproar before they announced they were pulling software off the shelves and offering to replace ‘faulty ‘CDs for free.
Now, anyone who's been around longer than 5 minutes will be able to tell you that companies aren't really as perfect and pretty and amazingly well organized as their annual reports and TV ads make out that they are. That's because companies are made up of people, and people screw things up. Not all the time, but sometimes. So, there will always be a risk that your company will look stupid. Just occasionally. The old adage ‘nobody’s perfect’, applies to collectives equally well as individuals.
Imagine that blogs are a transparent window into your organization that allow people to see what's going on inside. They can see people working hard, enjoying their jobs, healthy arguments, people having fun - They can also see that your company occasionally makes mistakes, or if people are unhappy. What would be the end result of such an imagining - Dwindling stock price? Deserting Customers? Impending Doom? granted, all of these things may potentially eventuate, but the important thing to remember here is this:
Your 'market' are all actually people.
There are no robots or rhinos out there with cash for you. Just People - and they've all made mistakes. They understand that occasionally things go bad. Just as you’ll forgive bad service if it’s adequately explained.
Going back to the Sony example, the absolute worst thing they could have done in that instance was to keep quiet about it:
”Rootkit? No, there is no rootkit. Everything is fine. Please continue to buy lots and lots of Celine Dion Albums.”That kind of arrogance can cause irreparable damage. People remember that stuff. So what to do? Panic, yell, call a few meetings, and then admit the mistake, and make it clear to the customer that you're doing your absolute best to fix the problem. Like Lindsay says here – the first rule of crisis communications is “telling the truth, telling the whole truth and telling it fast."
But future customers aren't going to hear that. Instead they're going to hear:
“...I read on the internet that My Celine Dion CD will install evil virus death software that deletes windows and downloads loonix…”Without that window for people to see for themselves, an excellent effort at customer service goes unnoticed - it could even potentially damage the next customer, because the bad news is still traveling quickly.
So, future customers can benefit from the transparency. Present customers benefit, because you try extra hard not to suck. What about the downsides?
If we have that window in place, who else can look in? Obviously it's not just potential customers. It's competitors, potential colleagues, partners, market analysts, shareholders... This is the scary part.
Chances are you wouldn't mind sharing this window with your partners, or future colleagues (unless your operation functions in some sort of really embarrassing way, like all work has to be done naked, or something.)
But your competitors will benefit – they’ll be able to use whatever information they can get against you, and if you are a serious player in your field, you can bet that they will. How much damage could they do? Potentially a lot - I guess it depends on what your company does. So, how do you prevent this from happening? This can largely be catered for with a corporate policy that aims to grant you the benefits of the window, without disclosing anything that could be potentially damaging. Employees like their jobs. Good employees will appreciate the policy and understand the need for it, and blog accordingly. Bad ones will continually breach it, and then you can fire them, or stop them from blogging...
Google does a great job of keeping it’s secrets. It has loads of bloggers. There was a big hoo-ha a while ago about a particular blogger who didn’t, and he had to get a job somewhere else. A corporate blogging policy has to be part of a modern HR world.
And what if people get the wrong idea? What if the window doesn’t reflect the company at all? What if this blogging window thing makes everything a hundred times worse?
All good questions. If you like to hire deranged lunatic ex mental asylum employees, or cheap prison labor, then this whole blogging caper might not be for you. If you can't trust your employees to say good things about your company, or you are honestly scared that their opinions will be more hurtful or harmful, then you probably have a much bigger issue to deal with.
Oh – and it’s most important that the window is actually real.
My favorite post from the Microsoft IE blog has Chris Wilson telling people that they still haven’t got CSS support right yet. I read it, and said “Yay! That is so cool of Microsoft” (even though I’d been swearing about IE’s crummy CSS support for at least 2 years.) Microsoft have turned their whole image around using this technology. Yay Channel 9. Yay Scoble. Real people, not marketing droids, talking honestly and openly.
It can't be a candy-assed pretend marketing department painted on rainbow and fluffy clouds and cute hopping bunnies window. That’s not the kind of window we want. It’s been proven that such Madison Avenue nonsense will do far more harm than good. Check out the sad, sad Juicy Fruit effort (well, you can’t - it's gone now, because it was laughed out of existence by the self correcting nature of the blogosphere) but you can see some of the fallout here and here.
Modern technology is empowering us all. As Seth Godin points out on his blog, We are all getting access to the same tools that the big guys use. This has never happened in history before.
This point is being and has been made a lot, by lots of other bloggers around the world, and I think that as we get along, it will all become part of the woodwork, and certainly not worth ranting about.
Meanwhile, my inspiration behind all this comes largely from the following places:
It's also most important to note that the original discussion (and hence the subsequent rant) was largely inspired by Ian. (And because I haven't yet discovered how to link in the real world, this hypertext tip-of-the-hat will have to do...)