Questions your CEO should ask before starting a blog

The question of CEO blogging keeps coming up. Opinions mostly fall in two camps:

• All CEOs should blog. As the leaders and chief communicators of their organizations, it is incumbent on CEOs to represent their companies in the social space where so much influence is wielded.

• No CEOs should blog. Because of regulations that govern the kinds of statements CEOs can make, and when, there is just too much risk that an innocent remark could result in a fine.

As with most things, though, the question of CEO blogging is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Clearly CEOs can blog, as evidenced by the number of CEOs who do.

If your CEO is considering blogging, have him or her answer these questions before taking the plunge:

Are you the best person in the company to assume this role?

In the early days of corporate blogging, GM launched one of the earliest blogs penned by a senior executive. It wasn’t then-CEO Rick Wagoner, but rather Vice Chairman Bob Lutz.

The decision was based on the fact that the most compelling kinds of conversations GM could have would be about cars, not the automotive business. Since Lutz was the most senior executive with direct responsibility for the vehicles GM produced, he became the executive blogger. Wagoner did post from time to time, when it was important for the CEO’s voice to be associated with the message, using a different company blog.

The focus of the blog is also the key to the next question:

Are you willing to blog about what your stakeholders want to talk about?

Far too many corporate and CEO blogs are filled with material the company wants to push to audiences. While this may make leaders feel good about using a blog, odds are that readers won’t flock to it. These messages are being pushed to them through any number of channels. For a blog to succeed, you need to start conversations about topics your stakeholders want to talk about. Do you know what those topics are? And are you prepared to address them, even if they’re not always what you think is important? If you do focus on topics your readers care about, it becomes easier to digress from time to time with topics you want to share with them. The more the blog becomes a locus of conversation and community, the more interested your readers will be in some of the issues you want to put on the table.

Are you ready to engage your stakeholders in conversation?

The point is debatable, but I don’t believe you have a blog unless you’re publishing reader comments. Without comments enabled, you’re just using blogging software to publish a column. Leaders who blog need to be ready to pay attention to reader feedback and input, and even engage in it. This doesn’t mean a CEO needs to actually read every comment left to his blog, particularly if it becomes popular and attracts hundreds of comments for every post. At some companies, a staff reads the comments, aggregates them based on their topics and sentiment, and delivers a summary report to the executive. Some executives engage directly in the comment while others simply write a follow-up post acknowledging what he heard from readers. But to view an executive blog as just one more one-way, top-down channel is to dramatically reduce the likelihood that stakeholders will pay attention to it. These are people who have come to expect interaction as part of the blogging experience.

Are you willing to commit to posting something regularly—that you’ve written yourself?

You can post as often as you like, but you must post at least weekly (three times a week is better) in order to build momentum, to build the expectation that you’re going to be opening discussions.

This is not a task you can offload to a PR staffer, the way you could when your byline appeared under the ghost-written CEO column that appeared on the inside front cover of the employee magazine. The whole idea underlying a blog is that it’s an authentic, honest message that you wanted to deliver and open for conversation. Nothing is more disingenuous than saying, “This is my blog, I’ve started it so we can have a dialogue about our business, but I’m not really writing it; it’s just not important enough for me to commit that kind of time.”

Your blog doesn’t need to take all that much time. In response to CEOs who have told me they don’t have the time to write a 1,500-word blog post, I respond, “That’s good; your readers don’t have time to read a 1,500-word blog post.” Short, pithy observations, explanations, and reports are ideal. What’s more, you don’t have to actually type anything. Marriott International CEO Bill Marriott dictates his posts into a digital recorder, which is transcribed (word for word) by his staff. At HP, a senior executive calls his posts into a voice-mail box established just for that purpose; his messages are also transcribed by staff for posting.

Ultimately, though, your view should be that you don’t have time not to blog. You should recognize what other CEOs—like Thomas Nelson Publishers CEO Michael Hyatt—have realized: that blogging ultimately saves time by reducing the more time-consuming communications that eat into your day. If you blog well, you’ll find that you’ve reallocated much of the time you spent less efficiently with other channels to your blog.

Are you well-schooled in what you can’t say?

Bill Marriott, CEO of Marriott International, writes about topics that will never cause regulatory problems. His posts talk about his staff, Marriott’s corporate social responsibility efforts, and other topics that would never raise an eyebrow at the SEC. Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz, on the other hand, does blog about the business side of Sun, but is savvy enough about the regulations that govern his words that he is able to avoid writing anything that would cause him trouble. Do you know enough about the regulations, what kinds of off-the-cuff remarks might be viewed as a material forward-looking statement or a revelation about earnings? If not, don’t blog.

Of course, if you’re with a privately held company not subject to SEC rules, this isn’t as important a consideration, although you should keep in mind that there are agencies regulating your business besides the SEC.

Are you prepared to talk about bad news and unpleasant topics?

Your blog cannot be all happy talk, even when your company is hit with bad news. Candor and credibility are contingent upon your being willing to address the issues about which your stakeholders want to hear from you. Are you ready to tackle bad news on your blog and to hear what your stakeholders have to say about it?

If you answer “no” to any of these questions, then you’re not a likely candidate for a CEO blog.

There are alternatives, however, if you’re bound and determined to have your CEO voice heard in the socialmedia space:

Group blogs—Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly posts an occasional item to the Nuts About Southwest blog, but only when the CEO’s voice needs to be heard. The blog is ready and available to him because of the community of Southwest employees who keep it populated with a wide variety of posts.

Facebook—A fan page on Facebook affords you an opportunity to create content stakeholders might be interested in and then add a CEO commentary only when the occasion calls for it.

Video—If your concern is that you’re not the world’s greatest writer, you could always opt for a video blog, speaking (not reading) your comments to a camera. There’s actually a tangible benefit to this approach: Your stakeholders can look into your eyes while you’re talking to them. You can upload your videos to a YouTube channel and embed the YouTube videos in your blog, making it easy for others to spread your words across other channels.

What other criteria should a CEO consider before undertaking a blog?

Here are some other CEOs who blog:

Paul Levy, CEO, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

John Mackey, CEO, Whole Foods Markets

Mike Critelli, now-retired Executive Chairman, Pitney Bowes

Richard Edelman, Edelman Public Relations

There are many other CEO bloggers. Whose CEO blog would you point to as an excellent example?

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