FT.com: Why executives should steer clear of the blogosphere

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Why executives should steer clear of the blogosphere
By Lucy Kellaway
Published: February 28 2005 02:00 | Last updated: February 28 2005 02:00

The chief executive of a US company recently put a question to his board. Why was it, he asked, that so few of his 5,000 employees took the blindest bit of notice of the memos, videos and voicemail messages with which he continuously bombarded them? And why was it, he asked again, that anything remotely secret whipped around the entire company before you could say Jack Knife?

They pondered this uncomfortable truth for a while and decided on an experiment. They would start “rumours” by word of mouth, warning the person they tipped off to keep their lips zipped. Sure enough, the “secret” information was known by the entire company instantaneously.

The trouble with this ingenious trick is that you can only pull it off once. The thought behind it is so cynical that if the workforce found out what was happening, trust (which is pretty fragile in most companies anyway) would be blown forever.

This CEO’s problem is one that affects all executives. Employees don’t want to listen to what they are saying – mainly because they communicate too much and most of it is too boring.

But now there is a new way that executives can reach not only their internal audience but the world at large – through the blog, or web diary.

According to an article in this month’s Fast Company magazine titled “Exec meets Blog. Exec falls in love”, this is a trend with legs. What better than a chatty letter a couple of times a week saying what is going through the boss’s mind? A gift, surely. The great thing about blogs is that people actually read them.

To introduce you to the form, I will start with Randy’s Journal, the outpourings of Randy Baseler, vice-president at Boeing.

“It’s always an exciting time when we roll out a new airplane, because it doesn’t happen all that often in our industry. And it’s an especially exciting time for our employees because they’re the ones who build these fabulous airplanes,” he writes in his latest entry.

Randy is new to the blogosphere, and I’m afraid it shows. The point of blogs is that they are personal and fun to read; his is a tarted-up press release. Randy battles on: “Meantime, there’s some really cool stuff coming up this year with the 777-200LR.” Evidently someone has told him that groovy people read blogs and he must alter his prose accordingly. This was bad advice. The result is a case of Dad at the disco.

More promising is the blog of Rich Marcello, senior vice-president of Hewlett-Packard. At least he has got the idea that a blog should contain personal reflections. A day or so before his boss, Carly Fiorina, got the boot, he was musing thus: “Last week was a good week and it reminded me of something I’ve believed for a long time – we are all Michelangelos. Sometimes we don’t like to call what we do artistic and we certainly are much too humble to equate ourselves to Michelangelos, but I believe it’s true.”

To test this novel theory, I seized a Biro and a scrap of paper and sketched the back of my good friend Michael Skapinker’s head and, as it happened to be his 50th birthday that day, I gave him the picture as a gift. “My head isn’t that shape,” he said, frowning. “Do you think I’m like Michelangelo?” I asked. No reply.

Back to Rich’s blog. The following week he had something to write about. His boss had been sacked. “So what was the reaction to Carly’s departure internally?” he asks in his blog. Answer: “It varied.” He says that he was a Carly fan but that she didn’t execute her vision quickly enough, which doesn’t get us much further.

Rather than tell us anything interesting he quotes a line from ee cummings about how difficult it is to be oneself. His conclusion: “No matter what you believe about Carly during her tenure at HP – friend or foe – I think you will agree she would have gotten along well with ee cummings.”

As it happens, I think Carly F would have eaten ee cummings for breakfast. Either way, the question of how the sacked executive would have got on with the overrated poet is not a pressing one.

A third sort of executive blog gives authors a chance to air their opinions on world affairs in a self-serving fashion. This is how Richard Edelman, chief executive of the PR company named after him, describes the recent Larry Summers foot-in-mouth episode where the Harvard president enraged some academics with remarks about the under-representation of women in science and engineering: “The Harvard controversy pains me deeply. I have three daughters and an accomplished wife. In fact, my eldest will be going to Harvard in the fall. I also know Larry Summers, not well but well enough. He is a decent man, a serious intellectual . . . ”

This entry bangs on and on. Alas, no one is listening. When I looked it had been on the site for a week and had attracted not one comment. But at least Mr Edelman invites comments. Neither the HP nor the Boeing blogs do, which is typical of the bad old ways of executive communication. It is the age-old message: I talk and you listen.

And now, finally, the executive who does get blogging. He is Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of General Motors. To me his blogs are excruciatingly boring because they are all about models of cars. What isn’t boring, though, is the way he does it. He defends his new Saab as if he means it, but then invites comments. On the same day 20 longish replies were posted – many of them critical. All there on the GM website for anyone to read.

The point about blogs is risk. If they are made risky in any way – either through publishing negative comments, or because the author is honest about themselves or their business, people will take notice. If they are merely another conduit for sanitised corporate information, or exercises in executive vanity, they will go the way of the corporate mags, the voicemails and the company spam. lucy.kellaway@ft.com

Travis makes the following comment, amongst others:

She starts with a long introduction about how rumors spread through a company, then says that blogs by executives can spread information as widely and quickly.

She says traditional communication fails because executives are boring. Actually, I’ve often found executives to be extremely interesting. Even if they’re a little less than scintilating, they certainly have a lot of interesting news to talk about. However, the ones I’ve known usually feel that knowledge is power. What’s changed, I think, with blogs, is that shared knowledge can help build personal power still.