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Corporate blogs are a liability

EDITORIAL: Many bloggers wear suits, not pyjamas. A recent proliferation of corporate blogs has given numerous workers a new platform for self-expression. But while employers hope to see business benefits, lawyers will see nothing but trouble.06 Apr 2006

Advert: Free OUT-LAW breakfast seminars, UK-wide: open source software; and data retentionFirst, some advantages to corporate blogging. You can do it internally to boost staff communication; or you can blog to the outside world (the subject of this editorial), revealing the personality of your people and complementing your brand with a human voice. You can hold conversations with customers or potential customers, find and encourage your brand evangelists and react quickly to negative publicity.

Now the problems. The most obvious risk is defamation. You may think your staff won’t write nasty things about other people – after all, they'll fear being sacked. But what about corporate rumours? Won’t a good blog be a little bit risky, a little bit edgy, occasionally share some juicy gossip with the blogosphere? That can be costly.

In 1997, a Norwich Union employee sent an internal email suggesting that a rival, Western Provident Association, was being investigated by the DTI and on the brink of insolvency. Western Provident got wind of this and pointed out that the comments were false and defamatory. Norwich Union ended up settling the case for £450,000 – despite the email never even leaving the business. It wasn't a blog but it shows the risk. Disclaimers cannot immunise a company against the misguided observations of a member of staff.

There are many other risks. Unhappy bloggers can generate negative PR. Microsoft has the posterboy of corporate blogging, Robert Scoble; but some of his colleagues have reported low morale at Redmond following the news that the consumer version of Vista, Microsoft's replacement for Windows XP, will be delayed until 2007. Comments like "Fire the leadership now!" and "This company is a mess on so many levels" are unlikely to impress Bill Gates or other shareholders. A blogger could unwittingly knock millions off a company's value by making a market announcement in a blog exchange which, unburdened by corporate lawyers, costs just $49.95 a year from TypePad. Or perhaps he just hints at a takeover target and gets you fined for insider dealing. If you're lucky, your shares won't be suspended.

Copyright and trade mark infringement are particularly easy. That's what Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V are for. A blogger left The Washington Post recently in the face of plagiarism allegations (he denied it but resigned; his boss said he'd have fired him anyway).

A joke can provoke a sexual or racial harassment claim. Reader feedback can seal a contract without that vital small print. The Advertising Standards Authority can chastise you for misinformation. The Financial Services Authority can punish and hurt you. Rivals can read your trade secrets and destroy you.

I'm scaremongering to some extent. There aren't many cases of online defamation, despite the existence of more than 30 million personal blogs. Defamatory comments might be unseen or ignored; or if there is a complaint, removing the content and saying sorry usually prevents a lawsuit.

Do remember that suits look more attractive than pyjamas to prowling litigants, but do not panic. Businesses have always trusted their staff to communicate with customers. Corporate blogging is just another channel for communication. What matters is that, if employers embrace it, they must do so with their eyes wide open.

Good blogs bring out a personality. They need spontaneity and oxygen, not censorship – which means keeping legal and marketing departments at arm’s length. That is possible, despite the risks. However, staff should still follow a blogging policy. This can be standalone or part of a wider communications policy. Keep it simple and make sure people know about it. Set out the rules: when they can blog, what they can say, what they shouldn't say, what happens if they break the rules. And don't allow everyone to blog. You need to trust your blogger.

Choosing the right blogger is vital, but I don't just say that because I'm a lawyer. I say it as someone who has been using the internet as a shop window for an organisation for the last six years. Sadly, most people can’t write compelling material; and the people with the most interesting things to say are often the people with the least time to say them. Blogs are easy to start and difficult to maintain. So the biggest obstacle to corporate blogging is not the law; it's finding good bloggers.

Should OUT-LAW have a blog?

I shared these comments at an excellent conference that took place in London on Tuesday called Blogging4Business. With almost 200 people in attendance, the £200-a-ticket event confirmed that blogging is being taken seriously by a diverse range of businesses. IBM has a staggering 3,000 bloggers. Less obvious candidates, like PwC and Wells Fargo, are just getting started. Should we join in?

We've been running OUT-LAW for the last six years. It isn't a blog but it has achieved many of the same things as a good corporate blog: it raised our profile; it proved our expertise in technology law where rivals only claimed to be experts; it communicates in plain English, not legalese; it made the law firm more approachable; it brought out some personality. Most importantly, it brings in work for the firm.

But we recognise that OUT-LAW is now more than just a shop window. We have thousands of loyal users and we'd love to engage with them more than the current site allows. A blog might help. So should we blog? If so, what do you want to hear? Please let us know.

By Struan Robertson, Editor of OUT-LAW. These are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Pinsent Masons.

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