Personal Blogs in a Professional World

A couple of weeks ago, I asked about how personal a professional communicator should get in a blog. I started thinking about that when I got involved in a dispute with the Town of Carrboro not long ago. I used my blog to draw attention to the dispute and I used my personal Web site to mobilize people to lobby the town on my behalf.

While I was doing this, I did my best to remain professional, to not let out the emotions that came with being personally involved. But I wondered all the while if what I was doing was ethical. It raised a couple of questions for me: How should professionals use personal blogs – especially communicators? How could my blogging affect my job search? After beginning my career, could my past blogs affect stakeholders’ perceptions of me and the organization I represent?

So I researched for a while and found out this has been an issue in an important communication field – journalism. Chez Pazienza was a producer for CNN who started a blog, Deus Ex Malcontent, in 2006. He got a lot of hits and was picked up by a few sites, including the Huffington Post. CNN found out about his blog in 2008 and fired him, citing a policy forbidding employees from writing for outlets other than CNN.

Other media organizations have more elaborate policies. The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune require that reporters have their blogs approved by editors to prevent conflicts of interest. New York Times reporters aren’t allowed to blog about anything they cover professionally. Spokane’s Statesman-Review requests that employees “not blog about anything that would surprise editors or colleagues.” (see Kevin Rector’s article, “Murky Boundaries” in the American Journalism Review”)

It’s notable that these organizations have policies in place, but I find it interesting how little they really say. It’s a hint that news organizations have yet to realize just how much of an effect a reporter’s online presence has on his or her credibility. The regulations are vague, allowing leaders to adapt interpretation as they learn more about a new medium.

I’ve asked a couple of PR firms about their blogging policies for employees and they’re similarly vague but a lot more hands-off. Raleigh-based French | West | Vaughan (FWV) has a pretty simple but open policy. Aside from a restriction against revealing confidential or proprietary information, there’s not much there. Employees have to “prominently disclaim” any connection between their views and those of the agency. They are also expected to be transparent if they blog on behalf of a client, revealing their ties with FWV and the client.

Capstrat, another Raleigh based PR firm, has an even less stringent policy. They expect their employees simply to “use good judgment.”

So, from this limited sample of PR firms, it looks like PR professionals have more leeway in posting opinions to the Internet. Why? Probably because people expect a level of objectivity and disconnectedness from reporters that they don’t expect from PR people.

So what should be avoided on a blog personal blog? Jim Hazen, Capstrat’s web analytics guru, says, “the goal of the personal blog is to develop credibility that extends into the professional realm.” Blogging about events and issues within your field will certainly help you get noticed and can establish your position as a thought leader. Or as an idiot…

But Hazen and others also point out that letting your personality show in a blog is important too. Just because you want your blog to be professional doesn’t mean you can’t write about a family trip to Oregon or, say, swimming in the river that borders China and North Korea.

Which ties it back to my question, and my blog. There were certainly things I wanted to say in my Carrboro dispute that I held back from the Internet. There are likely things I said that other people looking at (and for) careers in communication would not have posted. Fair enough. Using my blog and Web site didn’t bring me victory in my dispute, but it did generate a good amount of emails being sent to the town’s leadership. I think this is more a strength than a liability.

The thing to remember is that everything I’ve said here and everything that has been said elsewhere is subjective. It’s all open to interpretation. If you’re looking to write start a personal blog, write what you are comfortable writing and let it sit for a day. If you’re still comfortable posting it a day later, post it. But be professional – however you define that word.

There’s a lot more that could be written on this and it’s a topic worth revisiting in the future. In the interest of brevity, I’m going to leave it here for now.

Veteran’s Day

I know I owe a blog post about about personal blogs, but I want to digress a moment and talk about Veteran’s Day.

In 2004, I went to France as part of the ceremony to honor the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It really was a humbling experience and one of the coolest things I got to do in the military. I met and interviewed a lot of the men who stormed those beaches 60 years before. Talking to them – I don’t know how to say it – it really was something that kind of put everyday problems into perspective.

Anyway, on June 5, the day before the official ceremony, I met a British sailor who actually wound up having to storm the beach twice. He explained why but I don’t remember the reason. I do remember him talking about all the friends he lost – many of whom died while he was watching. When our conversation was ending, I walked away awkwardly and – not knowing what to say – said, “I hope you enjoy tomorrow, sir.”

He looked back quickly and said in a very flat voice, “I can assure you, son, that I will not.”

I had no idea how to respond, and it made me feel terrible. What I said wasn’t what I meant, but I guess I never really thought it through. It’s like how we ask the guy at the cash register how he’s doing all the time, when really we don’t care. We’re just offering a greeting.

Well, I think that happens a lot on the 11th day of the 11th month of every year. It often happens when people come into contact with veterans. There’s a woman named Joan Gaudet who stays at the Bangor, Maine airport to greet returning troops and say farewell to deploying ones at all hours. She put it best: “I mean, what can you say, they are going to war. ‘Stay safe’ just doesn’t cut it.”

Veteran’s Day (or Armistice Day or Remembrance Day) is a special day. It’s not a holiday. It’s celebrated in many of the countries involved in World War I because the major fighting stopped on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

It’s not the kind of day to say “Happy” whatever, and I’m not saying that out of spite for all the people who have wished me a happy Veteran’s Day today. I think a lot of veterans appreciate that people remember and find the intended meaning in improperly used words.

So what is right to say? Thank you? Give him/her a hug? I don’t really know. One of my friends wished me a “Happy Thanks-for-having-the-balls-to-fight-for-America-because-I-don’t Day,” which made me smile. But sometimes words can’t properly describe feelings.

If I could have that conversation in Normandy over again, I would just pat that sailor on the shoulder and wish him the best. In five years I still haven’t figured out what kind of words could have expressed my respect for him.

And maybe I never will.

After Action Review

Well, I signed a lease at a new apartment today. I moved most of my stuff in about two hours with the help of a friend. The new place is small but nice. It’s still a little weird to have moved today.

In doing all of this I have tried my best to keep my wits about me. I certainly found myself in a tough spot with unknowingly renting an apartment that wasn’t legally allowed to be rented. Then to have to try to work with town leadership was an added difficulty. Then tack on the stress of being hobbled by an injury, finishing grad school and looking for a job… it’s been an interesting time.

My goal has been to convince the Town of Carrboro that it was in its interest to make an exception and allow me to stay in my apartment, since I found myself there unwittingly. Though I was personally involved, I’ve done my best to act professionally and to employ effective means of communication. I’ve wondered all along if bringing these issues to my blog and my Web site was a good idea.

So I bring the discussion here. In the Internet era, is it unwise to use your own Web site or blog in a personal issue? What are the ground rules for doing so? Is it better to just use your online presence for self-promotion? I am, in fact, applying for jobs right now, so my potential future employers can — and most likely will — see what I’ve done in my online campaign against Carrboro’s actions.

I’ll give my opinion soon, but I’d like to hear what others have to say first.