Corporate Blogs Blather While Markets Tumble

Between checking and commiserating with colleagues, it’s safe to say there wasn’t a lot of work getting done this week. Nervous investors flock ed to the Web for some sign that the turmoil in the financial markets would soon die down.

With so much attention riveted on the future of the economy, this seems an ideal time for corporations to use their blogs to provide guidance and reassurance, or at least perspective, on the Wall Street meltdown. However, a quick tour of some prominent sites demonstrated that they were doing anything but that. Here’s a sampling:

Kodak‘s Thousand Words blog posted photos of Northern California scenery and humpback whales off the coast of New England.

Accenture has a perfectly aligned blog about Accelerating High-Performance Business. It hasn’t been updated since early July. There’s also an Accenture blog devoted to advice from experienced consultants. That one hasn’t been updated in two months.

BenettonTalk took on the topic with its characteristic directness and left-wing advocacy. It pointed to several articles from people who want to revamp the US financial, transportation and participative government systems.

Boeing is tied up with a strike, so it can perhaps be excused for not addressing bigger economic issues. Randy’s Journal hasn’t.

Wal-Mart, which is one of the most important companies in America , posted two entries since the crisis began. One was about its campaign to reduce plastic bag waste and the other clarified its strategy on digital rights management. I suppose that’s more important than the economy in some parallel universe.

Factory activity hit its lowest level in seven years last month. With that as a backdrop, Chrysler chose to devote space to test-driving the Dodge Challenger and a new model of its gas-guzzling RAM 1500 truck. It also posted a video of Chairman Bob Nardelli talking about electrical prototypes. We can assume everything is just great at Chrysler.

As the Dow fell 777 points on Monday, Delta Airlines posted an item about its sponsorship of the World Business Forum in New York City. Describing an event that covered “leadership, innovation, the intersection of politics and business, and the challenge of change,” the blog didn’t say one word about a mounting financial crisis that touches on all those areas.

Give General Motors credit for trying to be topical. Its September 29 entry presented Chairman Rick Wagoner making a case for government loans to automakers to meet more stringent fuel economy standards. At least that’s newsworthy.

Johnson & Johnson talked about a visit to BlogWorld and a dinner honoring two esteemed scientists.

Bill Marriott, who is one of the few CEOs who blogs, commented proudly on Marriott’s selection to a list of best places to launch a career and more soberly on a hotel bombing in Pakistan. Not a word about the outlook for the travel sector.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers has an article by David Phillips about the shortcomings of regulatory reports. Of all the corporate blogs I checked, this is the only one in the US that addressed the market turmoil directly.

Sony wrote about a charity it supports and the long-term viability of the Blu-Ray disc format.

Southwest Airlines talked about a new approach to speeding up lines at airport security and also a pilot’s experience during a particularly rough landing in Austin. In 13 entries since September 17, there was only one passing reference to “the current mess on Wall Street.” Toyota was happy to report that 48% of Lexus owners are repeat customers. It also boasted about two new crossover vehicles as well as its ongoing work on hybrids. I guess the US economic crisis is a domestic matter.

Wells Fargo says its Guided by History blog “allows our archivists and historians to provide a rich online experience that bridges events in the past with an outlook on the future.” You’d think this would be a great time to look at past economic meltdowns for context about the current turmoil. You would be wrong. Instead, the entry posted the day after the Dow’s record drop was a travel video.

My point isn’t to ridicule these companies. Rather, it’s to demonstrate how far we still have to go in achieving the culture of openness that new media enables. Here was an opportunity for some of America’s most respected corporations to offer guidance and thought leadership to frightened consumers. Instead, most chose to serve up the same old happy-talk mush they’ve delivered for years. That’s their right, but that isn’t leadership.

These are historic times that offer businesses the chance to break through the noise and do something daring and different. So far, corporate America has fumbled the opportunity. Perhaps, as the economic picture becomes clearer, some will start talking with their customers instead of marketing at them. That would be a welcome development. I’ll keep an eye out for you.

Tips for Dealing with Online Negativity

I’ve recently counseled some clients who have been struggling with blogger negativity. Their experiences offer lessons in how to deal with this common problem.

Anyone who embarks upon a social media campaign risks opening him- or herself to attack. Even the most noble causes can run afoul of extremists. In the vast majority of cases, these problems can be contained with sufficient planning. The trick is not to get caught flat-footed by criticism you didn’t expect. In fact, when managed professionally, negativity can actually enhance your image by demonstrating that you’ve thought through the issues in detail.

Negativity can usually be anticipated and blunted if you deploy a few basic tactics:

Anticipate. Before launching a blog or public forum, know what you’re getting into. If you have critics, they will use the opportunity to air their gripes. Even if you don’t think you have critics, you should be prepared for them to emerge from unexpected places.

One client chose to blog about his adventures exploring new geographies. He was proud of his efforts and so was completely blindsided when environmentalists began attacking him. Had he thought through his topic more thoroughly, he might have anticipated such criticism.

Most businesses are poorly prepared to anticipate criticism because they only see the good in what they do. Here’s where an outside perspective may help. Come up with all reasonable arguments against your story and prepare a defense for each. It may be worth hiring a domain expert or journalist to help poke holes in your case.

Keep calm. If you really want to confound a critic, look up his phone number online (this usually isn’t difficult). Even if you end up leaving a voicemail, the mere act of personalizing an anonymous interaction often heads off a confrontation.

Don’t censor. A little criticism actually isn’t a bad thing. It makes you look more credible. Respond to adversaries using the tactics outlined above, but don’t use your power to silence them. It will backfire on you.

Address issues, not people. You also don’t have to speak directly to your critics. If people are harping on one issue, post information that addresses several critics. DuPont did this a few years ago when rumors popped up that Teflon caused cancer. DuPont didn’t address its critics directly but instead set up a website to tell the truth about Teflon. By refuting the rumors with scientific evidence, the company quickly put the issue to bed. Bloggers helped out by linking to DuPont’s informational website. The company never got down in the muck with its detractors, but effectively dispatched the rumors with facts.

If you employ these four tactics, you’ll be able to cope with nearly every challenge to your credibility, even the unanticipated ones.

How NOT to Cope With Bloggers

My passion for journalism keeps me in close touch with the newspaper industry, a business whose perilous decline I’ve documented through my Newspaper Death Watch blog. A trend has been playing out there recently that is relevant to anyone who is trying to cope with the new influence of citizen publishers on their market.

Nearly every major newspaper company has recently seen blogs spring up that speak to their problems and future. Among them are TellZell (Tribune Co.), McClatchy Watch (The McClatchy Co.) and The Gannett Blog (Gannett Co., Inc.) It’s the Gannett example that intrigues me most.

The independent Gannett Blog is written by Jim Hopkins, a former Gannett editor and reporter. It covers all kinds of topics related to Gannett’s business and its future. These days, that content includes a lot of speculation about layoffs and cutbacks at a company that recently announced it will cut 1,000 jobs, or about 3% of its workforce.

The Gannett Blog has gone viral in its quest to become a sounding board and information source for employees. Jim Hopkins recently revealed some traffic statistics: 91,000 visits and 189,000 page views in the last 30 days. That’s serious blog traffic, and much of it comes from Gannett employees who feel they can’t get a straight story from their employer. Gannett Blog has become the virtual watercooler for a company of 46,000 people.

The conundrum for Gannett is what to do about Hopkins. So far, it’s chosen a strategy of benign neglect. Tara Connell, Gannett’s chief spokesman (and interestingly, a former managing editor at USA Today) has gone almost silent recently as rumors have swirled about layoffs and cutbacks, Hopkins says. Meanwhile, traffic has grown. This post from two days ago has drawn more than 160 comments, many of them from people who identify themselves as Gannett employees. People are now actively trading rumors about layoffs at their individual newspapers, with Gannett blog functioning as the gathering point.

Gannett’s strategy is worse than “No comment.” Not only has the company not contributed its perspective to the flood of comments, it now barely even responds to Hopkins’ requests for information, he says. As the chorus of pleas for guidance from the company grows in volume, Gannett becomes more closed and insular. Gannett didn’t respond to my own requests for comment.

Gannett is approaching this problem in the worst way possible. Regardless of its opinion of bloggers and citizen journalists, the fact is that The Gannett Blog is drawing huge attention among the company’s own employees, who are the most valuable spokespeople it has. Gannett’s failure to respond to the speculation and allegations of this critical constituency has become almost as big a story as the company’s business problems.

In the new world of citizen-powered publishing, institutions have fewer places to hide than ever. Silence is an invitation to speculation, and individuals now have the means to state their opinions in a very public way. A better course of action for Gannett would be to respond to the comments posted by Jim Hopkins and his readers. Even if that response is a “no comment,” it’s at least an acknowledgement that their concerns are being noted.

You might argue that an engagement strategy is risky for a publicly traded company. That’s just wrong. Public companies live under all kinds of regulations, but there is nothing to prevent them from acknowledging that they care about and listen to the concerns of their stakeholders. Any comment is better than silence.

One of the great ironies of watching the newspaper industry collapse has been to see the same media icons that have long scolded institutions for their insularity become reclusive and inwardly focused when the spotlight is turned on them. Gannett Blog is exhibit A in how not to handle new influencers.