In 2006, Donato Montanaro Jr.'s right eye began rejecting a cornea transplant from more than 20 years before. He rushed to an emergency room. A few weeks later, he told the story on his blog, with a couple pictures from the hospital. Clients flooded his in-box with get-well wishes.
Montanaro is chief executive officer of TradeKing, an online discount brokerage. He's been at the front of Internet innovation since the early days of online brokering, when people who thought they were trading stocks directly online were actually just sending an e-mail to a printer in his office; he would then make the trades himself one by one.
He was an early adopter of blogging, and he takes it very seriously. So seriously that he has hired a director of online content, Jude Stewart. Stewart makes sure that everything on the TradeKing Web site is clean, accurate and consistent with the company's values. Including her boss's online persona.
Almost no CEOs were blogging when Montanaro began; now it's almost de rigueur for the head of a company. Why? As Richard Levick, the CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, puts it, "Effective blogging is about listening. It's about accepting criticism in a place where you can correct problems in real time. It's about demonstrating to consumers and stakeholders that a company and its leadership value their feedback and take their concerns seriously. And ... it's a powerful monitoring tool that provides invaluable insight into potential crises that may be lurking just around the corner."
But you've got to do it right or you shouldn't be doing it at all. How do you do it right? It's an open secret of corporate communications that many e-mails from CEOs aren't actually written by CEOs. As social media take off in the corporate world, that's not true only of e-mails. Blogs, too. Montanaro is ahead of the game in this. He has Jude Stewart draft blog posts for him (not all of them), based on meetings they have. Montanaro edits the drafts to make sure they sound like him and to add details Stewart didn't have.
He's careful about what he posts, too. His blog contains bits about spearfishing in the Bahamas, but it also is kept in line with the company's marketing and customer service strategy and any legal regulations. CEOs always have to keep such things in mind when blogging.
There is no legal distinction between a CEO's personal blog (with or without a disclaimer) and his public statements, says Greg Aldisert. Aldisert is a partner at the law firm Kwika, in Santa Monica. "Boneheaded statements are not as concerning as are revelations of health issues or dangerous personal habits (like skydiving)," he says. You need to be careful about what you reveal--especially if someone can argue that what you're making known could affect the company's value: "There are a lot of class-action lawyers looking for items like this," Aldisert says.
Even in a blog done entirely through the company, a CEO has to be careful about what he or she reveals. An executive who uses his blog to think aloud about his company's business strategy or where its products "might" go won't inspire confidence among customers or shareholders. "Blogging has an informality about it, like e-mail," says Katharine Parker, co-chair of the employment law counseling group at the New York law firm Proskauer Rose. "All the dangers of informality come with it." Many companies have policies banning employees from revealing inside information. CEOs need to keep to an even higher standard.
Both Parker and Aldisert say legal counsel should be involved in any CEO's blog. Not that legal should check every post (that would defeat a blog's purpose), but there should be parameters set from the beginning. Start by sticking with what's already public. If someone isn't publicly known to be a client of the company, revealing that fact in your blog could spell trouble.
But legal issues can't be the only ones you worry about--unless you're happy removing all value from your blog. You have to think of it as a marketing tool.
Bruce Weindruch is CEO of the History Factory, which acts as a corporate historian for its clients. He is more interested in having a good blog than in avoiding taboos like mentioning a client company. "Sometimes you have to make a judgment call," he says. "I've given shout-outs to companies in my blog." It can be a good way to get readers, he adds. He mentioned one company in a blog post, the link was posted on that company's Intranet, and, "We got more hits that day than any other."
"A CEO's blogging has to be as removed from selling as possible," says Rob Gorrie, CEO of the media strategy outfit Adcentricity. The blog should be a marketing tool, but not an advertising one. Particularly if your company sells to other companies, you can showcase your values, intelligence and creativity. If your blog displays those things and stays relevant to potential clients' interests, they'll more likely to become actual clients, Gorrie says.
Richard S. Levick recommends having a strategy to coordinate your blog with your use of social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, to help your company find out about and nip crises before they blow up. Montanaro has such a strategy. When comments are posted with questions or complaints, Stewart gets answers immediately, e-mails them to Montanaro and sends off responses in short order, keeping his correspondents informed and happy whenever possible.
The demands that social media put on CEOs are growing. If you want to begin blogging, it's a serious commitment. Having no blog at all looks better than starting, stumbling, giving up and admitting to your readers, "It's not you, it's me." If you think that might happen, don't even begin. If you find that it is happening, cut your losses quickly.
Nathan Egan runs Freesource Agency, which consults about social media. He suggests that busy CEOs who want to blog consider using ghost bloggers. But even they require a commitment from the CEO. You need to find a ghostwriter knows your industry and can write in your voice (you may have to teach him or her how), and you need to get together often to keep the ghost blogger in tune with what's important to you. You still won't want to allow anything under your name to go out unread by you. If you can't even commit to that, maybe you shouldn't have a blog at all.
So you finally manage to get through everything and start a blog. Your legal counsel, marketing team and public relations department are all happy and on the same page. There's still one thing you should always remember: The headlines you write are everything.
The best way to get your blog posts spreading to Facebook, Twitter, Dugg and e-mail, and ultimately getting read, is by having good headlines. According to Egan, many people will post and repost based solely on a headline--without even reading the article itself. That's how to get your blog in front of a lot of eyes, and some of them actually reading what you have to say.
Make every headline short, punchy, surprising and to the point. Not sure how? Pay attention to what headlines you click on yourself. And experiment to find out what works. Egan advises tweeting a blog post of yours with one headline one day and with another a few days later; see which produces more hits. He suggests you take a look at Guy Kawasaki's Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/Guykawasaki). It consists almost entirely of links to stories using better headlines than the ones on the stories themselves.
Sorry, CEOs. You've just been given another responsibility.
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