Yahoo Serious About Employee Blogging

After Yahoo officially embraced blogging with the launch of its Yahoo 360 consumer blogging feature, the company has gotten serious about employee blogging, as well.

On Wednesday, it published official guidelines for employees who author personal blogs that mention Yahoo’s business, products or co-workers.

Any mention of things that haven’t been made public is a no-no, of course, and bloggers are advised to notify the corporate PR department if nosy journalists contact them.

They’re also encouraged to contact members of the relevant Yahoo team before criticizing their work.

“Whether you are posting in praise or criticism of Yahoo, you are encouraged to develop a thoughtful argument that extends well beyond ‘(insert) is cool’ or ‘(insert) sucks,'” the guidelines say.

Yahoo reminded staffers that the same rules apply when they’re commenting on others’ blogs.

“These are purely guidelines, helpful advice people can choose to follow, but they’re not obligated to,” said Heidi Burgett, a Yahoo evangelist in the corporate communications department. “It’s your choice — and we really mean that.”

Some companies have a two-tiered blogging scenario. On the official level, they employ marketing people such as Microsoft’s Robert Scoble and Google’s Michael Krantz who are specifically tasked with evangelizing via the short form.

Meanwhile, well-known employees often write personal blogs in which they have to constantly remind readers that they’re not speaking for the company.

A third tier is where the juice is, for corporations and their info-hungry customers. It’s the engineers, product managers and marketers who blog for the company but without a mandate.

Microsoft, a PR stonewall, has most embraced this third tier. Scoble, a marketing executive, is a rock star of the blogosphere, because he pulls no punches when it comes to his employer. There are thousands of corporate bloggers, most of them developers who put a face and a voice to the world’s largest software company as they cheer, jeer and opine about life within Microsoft and outside it.

By press time, Microsoft’s PR agency hadn’t responded to a request for comment. But Shel Israel, an independent consultant on corporate messaging, noted that more than 2.5 percent of Microsoft employees blog, most of them mid-level personnel. “Their own morale has been turbo-charged by the ‘blog smart’ tolerance [of the company],” he said, while a Channel 9 survey showed that developer perceptions of Microsoft moved from a strong negative to a strong positive. “I think there is no question that blogging — along with burying a great many hatchets with governments and competitors — make the perception of Microsoft kinder and gentler than it has been in more than a decade.”

A Google spokesperson refused comment on employee blogging beyond saying the company has guidelines it shares with employees. In January 2005, Google fired Mark Jens, a new engineering hire, after he whined about stock options in his personal blog.

But other bloggers, notably Adam Bosworth, who joined Google from BEA Systems , blogs regularly about Google issues.

Loose-lipped bloggers seldom get fired, it seems — and certainly not so publicly as Jens. A January 2005 survey of 279 HR professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 3 percent had disciplined an employee for blogging, and none had fired anyone.

The issue of blogging guidelines is hot in the corporate world, said Shel Israel, an independent consultant on corporate messaging.

“I think bloggers, management, legal and the corporate communications people will simply feel more comfortable if there are written guidelines — something HR hands you when you start work,” he said.

Burgett concurred. “If you’re a blogger, I can see how something like the Mark Jens firing could be frightening to you, not knowing what your position is,” Burgett said. “No one wanted to get themselves in trouble, so we thought it best to articulate some best practices.”

Momentum and interest in corporate blogging has been building. Back in September 2004, Sun Microsystems hired Dave Johnson, creator of the Roller blogging technology, to evangelize blogging both inside and outside the company firewalls.

Even the relatively staid IBM weighed in last month, posting guidelines on its intranet. Big Blue reports around 9,000 registered users of its internal blogging service and 20 blogs oriented toward exterior developers.

“Yahoo is the most recent of a whole bunch of companies who have started issuing blogging policies,” said Israel. “Yahoo’s shows that the sound of lawyers and PR people is starting to pervade blog guidelines.”

He said the part about not speaking to the press without notifying the public relations department was “a bit command-and-control.”

But Yahoo’s Burgett insisted that the guidelines weren’t mandatory. “It’s a freedom of speech,” she said. “Part of social media is being able to articulate your position.”

Israel, who is writing a book on corporate blogging with Microsoft’s Scoble, agreed with Jeremy Zawodny, a Yahoo marketer who posted a copy of Yahoo’s guidelines on his personal blog.

Zawodny wrote, “You’ll make mistakes. We all do. Just try to be smart about it.”

Burgett said Yahoo hadn’t requested Zawodny to publicly post the guidelines, which were published on the corporate intranet, nor had he asked. She skirted questions about whether this fell within the guidelines, saying only, “Jeremy is his own man.”

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