Monday, September 18, 2006

CEO bloggers communicate to the masses

Sun Microsystems Inc. CEO Jonathan Schwartz recently became "un blogeur" when he started publishing his Weblog in French and nine other languages.

Schwartz, whose online journal attracts 50,000 viewers each month, says going international will generate new customers attract prospective employees in Europe, China and elsewhere. That puts the 40-year-old chief executive at the vanguard of a trend in corporate communications, one that tears down barriers between executives and consumers.

"The blog has become for me the single most effective vehicle to communicate to all of our constituencies -- developers, media, analysts and shareholders," Schwartz said in an interview in his Silicon Valley office. "When I go out and have dinner with a key analyst on Wall Street or a key investor from Europe and ask them if they've read my blog, they almost universally say yes."

CEOs of smaller companies have already seized on blogs, and big companies are increasingly joining in -- despite the potential for disastrous backfires. In its unfiltered form, blogging lets them bypass the public relations department, journalists and industry analysts and speak directly to the public.

Executive coach John Agno said blogs can also cure the dreaded "CEO disease" -- the isolation that envelops a leader when subordinates become reluctant to disclose bad news or worst-case scenarios that might trigger a shoot-the-messenger response.

"Blogs are personal -- they humanize the Web and keep CEOs in touch with what's going on out there in America," said Agno, head of Ann Arbor, Michigan-based consulting company Signature Inc. "People feel they can really have a conversation with someone who has a blog."

Yet Schwartz is one of only a handful of Fortune 500 CEOs who blog -- and his entries are often risque. In his zeal to tout Sun, Schwartz has crossed paths with the company's legal department, whose attorneys have asked him to include "safe harbor" statements on blog entries that discuss future business strategies and products.

Thirty Fortune 500 companies are now publishing corporate blogs, nearly double the number in December 2005, according to the Fortune 500 Blogging Wiki, a collaborative tracking site. Technology companies like Amazon.com Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp. were early adopters, but senior executives at industrial giants like Boeing Co. and General Motors Corp. have also embrace the trend.

The amount of time executives spend blogging depends on the length and frequency of entries, though few seem to update more than once a week. Some executives -- including Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey -- don't include much original content and simply rely on excerpts from public speeches and press releases.
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz's "Fast Lane" blog includes entries from other GM executives and links to his favorite German and French auto enthusiast sites. Lutz's site has generated 10,000 reader responses since January 2005 and, along with a smaller GM corporate blog, gets 4,000 to 6,000 unique daily visitors.
The blog allows the Swiss-born executive to write directly to hard-core motorheads around the world. More than 900 readers asked Lutz, who oversees product development at world's largest automaker, to revive the Chevrolet Camaro. GM said last month it would develop a new Camaro based on a concept car unveiled in January.

"I'm not going to tell you that Camaro is happening because the blogosphere demanded it; that would be disingenuous," Lutz wrote. "But I will tell you that the enthusiasm shown for Camaro in this forum is a shining and prominent example of the passion that exists for this automobile."

More than 3,000 of Sun's 30,000 employees maintain blogs on the corporate network. Schwartz says one reason he encourages executives to blog is that it helps Sun attract new employees with specialized interests. Schwartz says the most esoteric blog entries -- those discussing chip multithreading; open-source projects in Brazil; or Java, the programming language Sun developed in the early 1990s -- attract passionate responses.
"If you really care about Java in the medical device community, the fact that there's a Sun blog where someone focuses on that suggests there's someone at Sun you can relate to," Schwartz said. "There may be three people at Sun who care deeply about this stuff, and you can go hang out with them if you come work for us."

Karen Christensen, CEO of Great Barrington, Mass.-based Berkshire Publishing Group, usually updates her blog weekly but last week spent a half-hour a day, five days a week, blogging during a visit to China. The blog gives colleagues a sense of her long hours and concern for the details of all her publications. That window into her world makes book reviewers -- her harshest critics -- consider her work in new light, she says.
"I had a reviewer write to me and say, 'I never knew there were real people behind this,"' Christensen said.
The publishing industry is rife with bloggers, including Macmillan Publishers Ltd. CEO Richard Charkin, whose "Chark Blog" includes slice-of-life entries from the British executive.

Consultants say blogging suits natural-born writers -- but it's tough for other executives.
"Ultimately, a good blog is good writing. Most CEOs are not good writers," said Debbie Weil, a Washington-based consultant and author of "The Corporate Blogging Book."

"The packaging and controlling of the corporate message has always been done for them, so often they don't realize that writing well is hard work and takes time and thought and practice," said Weil.
Blogs can also become a publicity land mine.
The worst blogs tend to be the newest -- before executives gain the confidence and speed to write for the medium, said Weil. She encourages "soft launches" where an executive practices blogging with entries that don't get published, and urges companies not to publicize the blog for several months after its debut.
Nondisclosure agreements and financial regulations can turn the most literary CEOs into scribes who post rehashed speeches or press releases. CEOs may also lack the thick skin required for blogging, said David Taylor, an executive consultant in Boulder, Colorado.

"One of the inevitabilities of blogging is that you get critical, hostile responses from trolls -- people who post provocative things just to inflame a reaction," Taylor said. "If you're the CEO of a 5,000-employee company, you don't need to be dealing with a troll."

CEO bloggers can also take heat when companies stumble.
Sun's annual revenue has declined in four of the past five years, and shares have plummeted from a high of about $64 in September of 2000 to around $5 this year.
"As much as I'm impressed by Jonathan's blog, I wonder how he has time to blog when he has a company that desperately needs management steered in the right direction," Taylor said.
Schwartz shrugs off criticism, insisting that blogging makes sense at Sun, which develops computer and storage systems, high-speed microprocessors and software for operating network equipment for corporate clients.
"Mainstream communication is horrible at serving niches," Schwartz said. "This is a good way to take the expertise around Sun, which can be pretty esoteric, and ensure it's available to the marketplace holistically."


Associated Press Report

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