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.