This was the thesis of the paper I presented at the Blogging Ethics conference this past weekend. Since a forthcoming issue of the Sloan Management Review
will be discussing these issues, I thought I'd share my paper here (references available upon request). Professor McAfee
from Harvard writes an article in this issue and blogs about encouraging executives to blog.Ethical Blogging Through Authenticity
There is a growing emphasis on the need to build trust with customers and other stakeholders (3), as the key to relationship marketing (11). This is occurring as more stakeholders are demanding more value-driven, ethical organizations (14). One important way to build those relationships is through integrated marketing communication (4, 12) or linking marketing communications to present a united brand image to the consumer. “When properly done, communication is the integrative element that helps tear down functional silos internally while closing the distance between company, its customers, and other stakeholders” (4, page 3).
If employee enthusiasm for a firm’s products and/or services can be harnessed, such as through employee blogging, it can be the integrating communications factor that brings a firm closer to its other stakeholders who in turn become enthusiastic advocates for the firm, or “customer evangelists” (9). Firms can utilize employee blogging to “focus on bringing consumers face to face with the organizational identity, while drawing them closer to the center of the organization through co-creation activities (2),” the key to providing source credibility (11) to consumers. Blog credibility is increasing as more and more employees read and rely on blogs at work (7). These unedited messages contribute to outsiders’ perception of a firm’s ethical reputation (14).Organic vs. Strategic Blogs
An analysis of corporate blogs classified them as either “organic” or “strategic” (10). Organic blogs are those that emerge spontaneously from within a corporate culture to communicate with external stakeholders. Strategic blogs originate with a specific management purpose or audience in mind. The analysis found six corporate websites with what could be perceived as organic blogs, or those originating spontaneously from employees. Microsoft and IBM both have over 2000 employee bloggers (5, 1). The seven GE blogs are all in Spanish for Telemundo. Hewlett-Packard features their executive blogs. Dell does not have blogs, per se, but community forums where customers and employees can exchange information. Finally, Ford has one outdated blog, Team LS, indicating that it might have originated as an organic blog from the LS Team, but has since been strategically co-opted by the public relations staff.
The other five corporate blogs identified in the analysis would be classified as strategic because it is clear that they were created for a specific purpose, such as Cisco’s blog covering high-tech policy affairs. Coca Cola’s blogs are specifically for consumers to play games and interact with their brands at refreshingwall.com. Intel and Nokia each have how-to blogs on their websites, both promoting the use of their products. Hewlett-Packard, in addition to having blogs written by their executives, also has links to customer blogs on their site.
Consumers are more likely to trust blogs they perceive as organic because they believe that those blogs originate from employees, who are perceived as a more ethical source of company information than traditional advertising (6). Strategic blogs might be perceived as organic, but will only be trusted if they do not deceive consumers by pretending to be something they are not. The extent to which the voice of the blogger is authentic is an even more factor that can impact whether or not a blog is perceived as ethical. The role of authenticity: the voice of the blogger
One way to make sure a brand’s good intention comes through is through the authenticity of the blogger’s writing, or voice. Dave Johnson (http://rollerweblogger.org/page/roller) at Sun Microsystems would be an outstanding example of an organic blogger with an authentic voice. Dave began blogging while he created the Roller blogging software, providing instant credibility and because of his role. An example of a strategic blogger with an authentic voice would be Robert Scoble, Technical Evangelist at Microsoft (http://scobleizer.wordpress.com/). He was hired to blog as a Microsoft employee, but he speaks/writes in his own voice. He has often mentioned on his blog that what he has written has made someone at Microsoft unhappy, but that he is writing what he feels is the truth, despite what others think, which makes him more credible to his readers. Both Microsoft and Sun treat these two men as having intrinsic value, and not as a means to an end, as evidenced by both bloggers ability to write in their own authentic voice, with no censorship of their blogging.
There are blogs with inauthentic voices, as well, which quickly erode trust between companies and their customers. By pretending to be something they are not, bloggers who are “hired guns” diminish credibility both in the brand and in the firm, and are seen as promoting unethical business behavior. Inauthentic or fake blogs are created to sell something, like Captain Morgan’s Rum Blog http://www.thecaptainsblog.com/home.php. When consumers discover that the blog comes from fictitious person, they lose trust in the blogger and the company. This happened to McDonald’s with their Lincoln fry debacle (http://andylark.blogs.com/andylark/2005/02/the_lincoln_fry.html) where a supposed consumer, Mike, found a French fry that looked like Lincoln and started blogging about it. After it was discovered that McDonald’s created this fake blog, it set off a debate as to whether or not it is proper or even ethical for marketers to create fake blogs to sell products. Advertisers already have a credibility problem with consumers (6) and creating fake blogs is not only unethical, but also tarnishes the brand.
In order for a blog and thus an organization to be perceived as ethical, the blog voice must come through as authentic. Ultimately, the blogger must ask him or herself if his or her action produces an ethical result. Authentic blog communication is a potential way to overcome a lack of trust by harnessing the reliable voice of company experts to build long-term relationships between a firm and its constituents. Therefore, blogging can be effective as an ethical form of communication, so that it is considered more than punditry and emotional rhetoric.