Self-proclaimed Microsoft Geek Blogger, Robert Scoble, posted his Corporate Weblog Manifesto a few years back. It still has much to commend it and was developed through painful experiences in the past. (NB Scoble's first chapter of his book on business blogging is here)
It's my view that blogs can be a powerful tool for companies looking to 'do' corporate responsibility well. Much of what Scoble has to say is of direct relevance, so I've annoted his list with my own comments below. Alternatively, the link to his original 2003 post is above.
Thinking of doing a weblog about your product or your company? Here's my ideas of things to consider before you start.
1) Tell the truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth. If your competitor has a product that's better than yours, link to it. You might as well. We'll find it anyway.
Alt: Blogging is an opportunity to develop and maintain relationships with stakeholders. Relationships are built on trust and without the truth you have no trust and hence no relationships. It's also critical that you seek to be transparent - show you have nothing to hide.
2) Post fast on good news or bad. Someone say something bad about your product? Link to it -- before the second or third site does -- and answer its claims as best you can. Same if something good comes out about you. It's all about building long-term trust. The trick to building trust is to show up! If people are saying things about your product and you don't answer them, that distrust builds. Plus, if people are saying good things about your product, why not help Google find those pages as well?
Alt: Most communication from corporate responsibility teams is either handled by the press office (which tends to operate on rather traditional lines) or most often, through the annual CSR report, which might be months after you product/service has been called out for being unethical or irresponsible. Blogging quickly offers opportunities to engage with the issue and not get caught out.
3) Use a human voice. Don't get corporate lawyers and PR professionals to cleanse your speech. We can tell, believe me. Plus, you'll be too slow. If you're the last one to post, the joke is on you!
Alt: The best CSR reports I read are about people with an accessible style that doesn't feel like they've been through three committees. Corporate responsibility is about placing human values firmly at the heart of business and the only way to do that is by allowing people to sound human... even if at times they don't sound quite as polished as you'd like.
4) Make sure you support the latest software/web/human standards. If you don't know what the W3C is, find out. If you don't know what RSS feeds are, find out. If you don't know what weblogs.com is, find out. If you don't know how Google works, find out.
Alt: Two points on this. a) Standards - accessibility is the least you should be doing to think about how technology affects your stakeholders. b) The technology is always changing - generally adding functionality which can help you deliver better corporate responsibility (see Why RSS should be a big deal)
5) Have a thick skin. Even if you have Bill Gates' favorite product people will say bad things about it. That's part of the process. Don't try to write a corporate weblog unless you can answer all questions -- good and bad -- professionally, quickly, and nicely.
Alt: Stakeholders respect companies that fess up and say 'Okay, we got this wrong' and seek to improve. No company is perfect, we all know that. The sooner we get a bit more real, the more people will trust companies. The bloggers at GM get some heavy schtick for their products - good thing too - but they are willing to take it so that they can engage with stakeholders. It's a risk, but they think it's worth it.
6) Don't ignore Slashdot.
7) Talk to the grassroots first. Why? Because the main-stream press is cruising weblogs looking for stories and looking for people to use in quotes. If a mainstream reporter can't find anyone who knows anything about a story, he/she will write a story that looks like a press release instead of something trustworthy. People trust stories that have quotes from many sources. They don't trust press releases.
Alt: For 'grassroots' read core stakeholders, particularly employees. A blog is potentially a great way to get conversations going within businesses, particularly big businesses. Scoble works at Microsoft. But its not just tech companies this applies to: bland notes on an intranet are never going to engage staff. If staff aren't engaged, if they don't care, you're not engaging with them the way they need to be engaged with. They may not give a damn about carbon emissions, but they care about other things. Find out what they are, because they might come back and bite you. Few stories interest a journalist like a disgruntled ex-employee with something serious to allege. Oh, and some employees will blog too.
8) If you screw up, acknowledge it. Fast. And give us a plan for how you'll unscrew things. Then deliver on your promises.
Alt: It's the time thing again. One CSR report a year? What's the chance you can respond effectively through 48pp addressing all your social and environmental impacts? Plan then respond. Then you call tell everyone in your 48pp report how you did it.
9) Underpromise and over deliver. If you're going to ship on March 1, say you won't ship until March 15. Folks will start to trust you if you behave this way. Look at Disneyland. When you're standing in line you trust their signs. Why? Because the line always goes faster than its says it will (their signs are engineered to say that a line will take about 15% longer than it really will).
Alt: I take a different view here - learn what your stakeholders expectations are and meet them, or manage them. Easy targets on CR performance make you look as though you aren't trying. Impossible targets, look like you don't understand what you are doing. Blogs can help you engage with these stakeholders and get a rough and ready measure of what they expect of you. This isn't a substitute for structured stakeholder dialogue, but a useful addition: see more on this here
10) If Doc Searls says it or writes it, believe it. Live it. Enough said.
Alt: Searls is one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto. Still probably the best exploration of how the internet is changing how everything relates to everything else and why. If you are wondering how this relates to CSR/corporate responsibility, I'd recommend Making the Network. I'm one of the co-authors and we got Doc's fellow Cluetrainer, David Weinberger to offer his thoughts.
11) Know the information gatekeepers. If you don't realize that Sue Mosher reaches more Outlook users than nearly everyone else, you shouldn't be on the PR team for Outlook. If you don't know all of her phone numbers and IM addresses, you should be fired. If you can't call on the gatekeepers during a crisis, you shouldn't try to keep a corporate weblog (oh, and they better know how to get ahold of you since they know when you're under attack before you do -- for instance, why hasn't anyone from the Hotmail team called me yet to tell me what's going on with Hotmail and why it's unreachable as I write this?).
Alt: This is a real integration question. Are you inside the core business or on the periphery? If you're in the former you are likely to have much better access to information gatekeepers. If you're in the latter, you need to become the former.
12) Never change the URL of your weblog. I've done it once and I lost much of my readership and it took several months to build up the same reader patterns and trust.
13) If your life is in turmoil and/or you're unhappy, don't write. When I was going through my divorce, it affected my writing in subtle ways. Lately I've been feeling a lot better, and I notice my writing and readership quality has been going up too.
14) If you don't have the answers, say so. Not having the answers is human. But, get them and exceed expectations. If you say you'll know by tomorrow afternoon, make sure you know in the morning.
15) Never lie. You'll get caught and you'll lose credibility that you'll never get back.
Alt: Traditionally companies assumed that their customers assumed they knew everything. Both assumptions were probably not far off. Supply chains were simpler. Customers' expectations were simpler. Things have changed. Admitting when you don't know something is difficult, particularly when you ought to. If you build relationships through a blog, a little vulnerability will be forgiven, lying won't be.
16) Never hide information. Just like the space shuttle engineers, your information will get out and then you'll lose credibility.
17) If you have information that might get you in a lawsuit, see a lawyer before posting, but do it fast. Speed is key here. If it takes you two weeks to answer what's going on in the marketplace because you're scared of what your legal hit will be, then you're screwed anyway. Your competitors will figure it out and outmaneuver you.
18) Link to your competitors and say nice things about them. Remember, you're part of an industry and if the entire industry gets bigger, you'll probably win more than your fair share of business and you'll get bigger too. Be better than your competitors -- people remember that. I remember sending lots of customers over to the camera shop that competed with me and many of those folks came back to me and said "I'd rather buy it from you, can you get me that?" Remember how Bill Gates got DOS? He sent IBM to get it from DRI Research. They weren't all that helpful, so IBM said "hey, why don't you get us an OS?"
19) BOGU. This means "Bend Over and Grease Up." I believe the term originated at Microsoft. It means that when a big fish comes over (like IBM, or Bill Gates) you do whatever you have to do to keep him happy. Personally, I believe in BOGU'ing for EVERYONE, not just the big fish. You never know when the janitor will go to school, get an MBA, and start a company. I've seen it happen. Translation for weblog world: treat Gnome-Girl as good as you'd treat Dave Winer or Glenn Reynolds. You never know who'll get promoted. I've learned this lesson the hard way over the years.
Alt: You've probably seen stuff about Eason Jordan, former CNN executive who was forced to resign over disputed comments at Davos. Who got him? A nobody, but a nobody with a blog. The McDonalds Two were nobodies with leaflets. There aren't any stakeholders that don't matter for you if they think you matter to them. So, do as the nice man says, and treat everyone like they are the richest man on the planet. They'll like you for it.
20) Be the authority on your product/company. You should know more about your product than anyone else alive, if you're writing a weblog about it. If there's someone alive who knows more, you damn well better have links to them (and you should send some goodies to them to thank them for being such great advocates).
Alt: The web makes us promiscuous for information: I once searched on Yahoo! now I search through Google. If something better comes along, I'll use that. I value authorities in corporate responsibility, the organisations that are looking to do it better and are willing now and again to take a few risks. That's leadership, and if you're honest, you'll be respected for it and people will stick with you.
Does this add up to more than a hill of beans? I reckon so. It's my firm conviction that businesses that wish to adopt positions of leadership in corporate responsibility are missing a trick by not embracing blogging and similar and related communication technologies. That said you need to realise what you are getting into, hence Scoble's manifesto and my annotations.
Am I suggesting CR teams have blogs? In some cases there maybe a case, in other companies where a CEO or Chair blogs I suggest the CR team seek opportunities to get involved, feed through ideas, offer to guest blog from time to time, and ensure the blogger knows they are willing to respond where necessary. Ultimately all businesses are different: what matters is what works, what delivers better corporate responsibility.