Let me start by demonstrating just a tiny amount of corporate cynicism.

"Blogging is so Web two-point-oh."

"Oh, but everyone has a blog."

"If you're not on, like, Twitter an' Facebook 'n' stuff, then you're like, a dinosaur or IBM or something."

Let's now all pause for a moment to welcome those companies that aren't, strictly speaking, technological leaders any more, to the blogosphere[1]. Congratulations, you've finally arrived. But what are we doing, here? What, when you get down to it, is corporate blogging all about? What should it be about? Why should a company do it? And when should it not?

A company should blog, first and foremost, when it actually has something to contribute to the world at large. Rambling personal blogs are fine for... well... personal purposes[2], but corporate blogs should be useful to current and potential customers, partners, shareholders and so on. They should also allow people within the company who normally wouldn't be at the front line of public relations to provide their perspective on things - otherwise, why have a corporate blog at all? Why not just have a series of press releases from your marketing department?

Having people within your company contribute to your corporate blog can be a two-edged sword. Unfortunately, it's one upon which many companies cut themselves. The pitfall should be obvious, but one damaging strategy that many companies employ is to sanitise or censor what their people say. I'm not arguing that you should permit people to blather your corporate secrets all over the web; merely that you should hire good people and then trust them to do their job well.

If you have a trusted, valued employee who's worked on your business-critical systems or in client-facing roles where they've already represented the company, you should trust in their professionalism and let them post what they deem appropriate.

If you have an irresponsible blogger who's publishing commercial-in-confidence information to the web at large, then you don't just have an irresponsible blogger. You have an irresponsible employee, who should be swiftly counselled or transformed into a former employee.

To Companies:

When asking your employees to blog on your behalf, you need to give them some guidelines about what they should and should not say, and you should also give them some benefits from doing so. I suggest these as a minimum:

  1. We won't edit your posts. Period. We reserve the right to pull them from the site if absolutely necessary, after which we'll explain to you why we did so, but we will never edit anything that's been published under your name. Period.
  2. We won't require an approval process. Post as you will. The corollary to this: be responsible with what you publish, because you will be held responsible for what you publish. We expect - and trust - you to do the right thing.
  3. It's infeasible to track whether it was personal or company time on which you wrote a blog post, so it must be accepted that if you publish a post on our corporate blog then we own the content.
  4. We grant you a perpetual and irrevocable (but non-exclusive) licence to use the content that you generate for our blog for your own purposes, including but not limited to syndication to your own personal blog, re-publishing as journal articles, or any other purpose you wish - specifically including for personal profit - provided that such use does not harm the company's reputation.

If you don't offer at least these guarantees, then your blogging-inclined employees will simply go off and publish their own content anyway, and you'll derive no benefit from their efforts whatsoever. Moreover, you'll have demonstrated a fundamental lack of trust in your employees that may well cause them to take their talents, not just their blogs, elsewhere.

If you can't offer at least these guarantees, then I respectfully suggest that a corporate blog is not for you.

To Individuals:

Carefully consider your personal reputation. If you haven't one, consider what you'd like it to be in a year or so's time. If you have one, consider whether the opportunity to blog for your company is more likely to enhance or damage it.

Consider whether you're likely to be permitted to express your real opinion on a matter, or whether you're going to be asked to be a corporate mouthpiece. If the former, great. Thank your employer and do the right thing by them. If the latter, I suggest that you respectfully and courteously decline the invitation to contribute.

Never lie. You needn't (and shouldn't) air your corporate dirty linen in public - everyone has it, and nobody appreciates seeing someone else's - but your personal integrity is yours to defend. If you disagree with a tactical or strategic decision made by your company, simply don't write about it. If you think Joe from Accounts is a cretin, keep it to yourself. Write about your area of expertise or influence; ask for feedback from your audience; allow your readers to understand that your company is thinking about their issues and exploring ways and means of helping its stakeholders.

Remember, if you blog as a corporate automaton, those of your readers who aren't very smart will probably take what you say at face value. Those of your readers who are smart and observant (those whom you should hope are your peers) will see straight through it, and these are the people who won't be hiring you at your next job interview - or whom you'll be trying to hire yourself. Presumably your peers are the ones you want to respect and admire you.

In General:

I was recently asked to contribute to a corporate blog. When I responded asking for the guarantees suggested above, I was surprised to learn that nobody had actually considered it yet. On reflection, that shouldn't have been much of a surprise - blogging is, after all, a relatively new beastie in corporate land.

The lessons to be learned from that, I guess, are to not be afraid to ask, and not be afraid to decline the opportunity if it isn't appropriate for you.

Will you see my by-line on a corporate blog any time soon? We'll have to wait and see :)

[1] Wow. Kudos to the Windows Live Writer team - their spell-checker actually recognises "blogosphere" as a word. Pity it didn't recognise "Facebook" :)

[2]  See my personal blog at uglybugger.org for a perfect example of that - anyone want a trailer? :)