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Moonlighting 101

Blogging is all the rage, but when your employees blog, make sure you know the legal ramifications.

 


Photo: Paul Souders
Blogs resonate because “businesses are made up of people, and that’s where the connections are established,” Radarworks’ David Brunelle says.

David Brunelle’s bosses should feel fortunate that he’s savvy about what he can and can’t blog about.

 

Like many businesses, Brunelle’s employer, Radarworks, didn’t have a formal corporate blogging policy when he approached his superiors in late 2005 about creating a personal blog about technology issues. It still doesn’t, but the company does require that all employees sign a nondisclosure agreement that covers all communications — including blogs and e-mail.

“We have a relaxed culture, and we’re all encouraged to express ourselves. It boils down to knowing what is appropriate to share with the world and what’s not,” says Brunelle, a network administrator with Radarworks’ marketing firm in its Seattle headquarters. “I assured them that I wouldn’t share any confidential client or company information.”

Will Weider, CIO of Wisconsin’s Ministry Health Care and Affinity Health System, also polices himself on www.candidcio.com, his personal blog about health care and information technology. Still, Weider committed to several self-imposed guidelines: Don’t write about anything that will get you fired; don’t use the blog as a forum to complain about vendor partners or competitors; don’t write angry. And remember that patients and the local press may read the blog.

“My bosses have all seen it, they read it, and their reaction has been positive,” he says.

Yin and Yang

Employee blogs can be a double-edged sword for businesses. Workers who love their jobs often become evangelists for their companies, but they can just as easily pen negative comments about their workplace and co-workers, disclose information that could put their employers at legal risk or, worse, write about inappropriate personal behavior that can embarrass the company. Small businesses need to protect themselves by creating clear and concise guidelines for company blogs as well as personal blogs that employees write outside of work.

Although Brunelle and Weider’s blogs have been trouble-free for their employers, other companies haven’t been so lucky. Delta Airlines, Google and Friendster are among a growing list of employers who have fired employees over personal blogs. In late 2004, a Delta flight attendant was fired for posting inappropriate pictures of herself taken on an airplane. During that same period, Google and Friendster fired employees who criticized the companies in their blogs (see box, below).

The legal risks involved with blogging include intellectual property issues, defamation and invasion of privacy. Intellectual property issues include copyright infringement of published content, such as articles, music and photographs, says Jacqueline Klosek, a lawyer with Goodwin Proctor in New York, where she specializes in intellectual property and privacy issues. “Don’t plagiarize other people’s content,” bad-mouth others or divulge workplace issues involving other employees, she advises.

If employees keep personal blogs completely personal, then they can write whatever they want. But if they write about work issues, then they should follow company blogging guidelines — even in personal blogs, she says.

Another intellectual property issue is the disclosure of confidential corporate information, both internal as well as that of business partners, which companies should ensure that employees don’t divulge. Disclosing nonpublic financial information could lead to securities fraud charges; disclosing a business partner’s confidential information, which violates a nondisclosure agreement or other agreement, can lead to a breach of contract claim, Klosek says.

Something to Blog About

About 63.2 million blogs exist today, and another 175,000 new ones come online daily, according to blog search engine Technorati. Most are personal blogs, where people keep online diaries. But large companies, such as Sun Microsystems, General Motors and Wal-Mart, also use the cybermedium to communicate directly with their customers. Still, blogs are relatively new in big business, with only 8.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies publishing them, according to the Fortune 500 Blog Project, an online volunteer effort that tracks blogs. They’re only slightly more prevalent in small businesses, according to a 2005 Hewlett-Packard survey, which found 10 percent using them.

But blogs are becoming an increasingly visible part of the marketing toolkit for small businesses that want to compete against large companies on the Web. Frequent posting can help boost search engine rankings, which in turn can increase online traffic.

“It’s a low-cost way to gain visibility,” says Debbie Weil, author of The Corporate Blogging Book. “You get your name, the personality of your company and your expertise out there.”

Small businesses can publish blogs at little or no cost through Web sites, such as Google’s Blogger.com or Six Apart’s TypePad.com, which both offer customizable templates. Anyone who can navigate a Web browser can set up a blog in minutes by pointing and clicking, says Mike Sansone, a small-business blog consultant and owner of ConverStations in Des Moines, Iowa.

Just ask Emily Chang. The co-founder of San Francisco Web design firm Ideacodes, Chang spends no money on marketing and instead lets two blogs do the work for her. Her professional and personal blogs receive 200,000 page views a month. She attracts clients — and even new employees — through them. Chang recently blogged about job openings at her company and hired several candidates who contacted her.

“It improves our visibility and helps portray us as a leader,” says Chang, who spends two hours a day updating her blogs at EmilyChang.com. “A lot of CEOs, venture capitalists and developers become familiar with our company and seek our various services.”

Getting Personal

When personal blogs are done correctly, they can be a boon for both employers and employees.

Brunelle’s personal blog (DavidBrunelle.com), which focuses on technology issues he faces at work and at play, receives about 500 visitors a day — some who find him by searching his employer’s name. He believes prospective clients go to his blog, and get a sense of who he is and what his company is about. That establishes credibility and builds trust, which helps Radarworks attract new customers.

“One of the great benefits for the company is it adds a human touch,” says Brunelle, whose blog includes photos of his co-workers, his company’s office and his family. “Businesses are made up of people, and that’s where the connections are established.”

The blog is also a good networking and information-gathering tool, says Brunelle, who commiserates with his readers about tech problems and ways to solve them.

Weider says his experience has been similar. His health-care and IT blog attracts about 150 visitors a day. He writes about company IT projects and gives his opinions on health IT issues. By doing so, Weider says he’s helping shape health-care policy, which ultimately can improve services at his hospitals.

His staff and vendors also read the blog, so it’s a way to communicate his IT philosophy and preferences. The Ministry Health Care and Affinity Health System operates 15 hospitals in Wisconsin, and “I have employees spread out across Wisconsin, so it’s another tool to get us on the same page,” he says.

 


Photo: Robert Houser
Six Apart co-founder Mena Trott and vice president Anil Dash say blogs foster teamwork within a company and let a company interact intimately with customers to improve services.

Six Apart executives also know about the power of blogs. The five-year-old San Francisco company helped launch the phenomenon with the introduction of its popular and easy-to-use blogging software tools, so it’s no wonder that every employee in the company blogs.

 

Almost two dozen blogs permeate Six Apart’s Web site (www.sixapart.com). The company announces corporate news, gives product tutorials and highlights interesting blogs that are published by its millions of customers. The customers, in turn, use the blogs to provide feedback and suggestions to Six Apart, a husband-and-wife startup that now employs 140 people worldwide.

“We bet our company on growing this way, and we’ve been fortunate that blogging does work and it’s helped us succeed,” says Six Apart vice president Anil Dash, who daily posts one or two blog messages on his company’s site. “We’re constantly sharing information with our customers. And just talking to our community influences our decisions. They tell us what they want, and we listen.”

Getting Started

Don’t be intimidated by the blank page — or, in this case, a blank blog, business bloggers say. Small-business owners can position themselves as experts on a subject, announce company news, answer questions about the company or give corporate tours by posting pictures, ConverStations’ Sansone says.

To get started, companies can create a corporate blog that focuses on one defined topic, such as a product, an event or a particular audience they’re trying to reach. “You can say, ‘We will do a blog for the next two weeks,’ and you get the experiment started,” Dash says.

Small businesses need to decide a blog’s tone and who in the company will blog. Dash recommends letting employees who are enthusiastic about the company participate. “Find employees who are already your ambassadors and are passionate — a receptionist or people in the middle of the organizational chart who love their jobs and like to talk,” he says.

At Six Apart, for example, a team of employees regularly blogs on the company’s Web site. Executives post everything from strategy announcements to fun videos recorded in the office. Product managers discuss new features that are about to be released, while the company’s software developers talk about bug fixes. The only rule is that another pair of eyes looks at blog postings before they are published, says Dash.

Six Apart has a liberal blogging policy that lets everyone publish blogs. Nearly every employee runs a personal blog outside of work, too, he adds. The company also uses the cyberforums as an internal communications tool. Through internal blogs, employees collaborate on projects, but they also discuss their interests and hobbies as well. Blogs not only foster teamwork, they help employees get to know one another, Dash says. “It builds camaraderie.”

Ultimately, companies need to think of blogging as a business tool they can take advantage of, says Louise Fletcher, co-founder and president of Blue Sky Resumes in Bronxville, N.Y.

“Blogging is like going out and networking every day,” says Fletcher, who gives job-search advice on her blog (BlueSkyResumesBlog.com) to attract new clients. “It builds awareness and establishes you in another way. It’s stepping outside the small world you are normally in and going out and reaching another audience.”

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Feb 23 2007 Spice IT

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