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This Weekend, Get Bloggin’: How to Best Speak Directly to Your Clients

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RISMEDIA, Feb. 9, 2008-(MCT)-Angry customers swarmed Burt’s Bees in November as soon as the all-natural cosmetics maker announced plans to sell itself.

Critics consider the buyer, bleach maker Clorox, to be far from environmentally friendly.

So Burt’s Bees CEO John Replogle knew he needed to defend his Morrisville company’s decision. He wanted to reach out to skeptics, read their fears and respond directly and conversationally to their objections.

He decided to blog.

“We need to meet people where they are, and where they are is online,” he said.

More corporate bosses are venturing into Web logs. They are following the example of executives such as Jonathan Schwartz of Sun Microsystems, Bob Lutz of General Motors and John Mackey of Whole Foods, who have made names for themselves by engaging audiences with provocative and occasionally regrettable remarks.

About 10% of Fortune 500 companies post their executives’ blogs, up from virtually none five years ago. The percentage is higher among smaller, private companies, especially in technology sectors, where CEOs are not bound by the same regulatory restrictions.

The point is to keep a conversational tone and skip the marketing speak and legal and PR protocol that sometimes make traditional communications insincere.

Web readers looking for insight on local leaders can learn why Durham software chief Ryan Allis thinks that it’s uncool to lead women on during dating.

Or they could discover on “The Monica Chronicles” that technology trade group president Monica Doss is thinking about singer-activist Bono’s possible connections to the Triangle.

Or find out what Replogle thinks about Burt’s Bees merging with a corporate titan. “I’m not asking you to judge us by our words, rather by our continued actions,” Replogle wrote in a Nov. 12 posting.

Replogle pledged that there would be progress reports on the Clorox merger within six months and said he welcomed feedback. He has since expanded Burt’s Bees’ blogosphere with a full-time employee who monitors feedback for complaints, inquiries and potential market trends.

It might sound great, but there is still pervasive aversion to blogging in more conservative industries.

“Most of my stakeholders tend to be local or institutional shareholders,” said Grant Yarber, CEO of Raleigh-based Capital Bank. “I don’t think that’s how they want to communicate.

“I’m a face-to-face person, and failing that I’ll talk on the telephone,” Yarber said. “That way people can hear the inflection in my voice and understand what I’m trying to say.”

Blogging gone wrong

Not all CEOs have been so careful. GoDaddy CEO John Parsons sparked anger in 2005 after saying on his blog that torturous interrogation methods used by the United States at Guantanamo were not inappropriate.

In July, Whole Foods suspended CEO John Mackey’s blog after he used it to bitterly denounce Federal Trade Commission officials.

But done right, blogs project openness and transparency in an age of mistrust. That can encourage readers to share substantive feedback, said Debbie Weil, a corporate blogging and social media consultant in Washington.

For an executive blog to succeed, it must come straight from the horse’s mouth, not a corporate PR machine. Further, it must include critical feedback from readers. Otherwise it’s just more propaganda, said Weil, who wrote “The Corporate Blogging Book” (Penguin Portfolio, $17.96).

Can the boss write?

Not all executive blogs are created equal. And executives who can engage stakeholders in gainful conversation must sometimes wrangle with legal and PR departments to get a message out unadulterated.

“There’s still this incredible fear of talking to people informally or hearing back from them,” Weil said.

Some companies go so far as to filter reader feedback that has embarrassing or critical remarks.

That can seem like sanitizing, and it’s also disingenuous and defeats the purpose of starting a dialogue, said Tim Flood, a professor of management communication at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“The blog is a counterculture vibe that gives executives a chance to be regular people. It personalizes and humanizes the corporation,” Flood said.

That’s in contrast to traditional communications such as news releases, which are interpreted as the voice of a corporate machine.

“You don’t want the perception of information control, because that flies in the face of the blogging mentality,” Flood said.

More important, open-dialogue blogs are a gold mine of market information. For instance, some criticism from customers, employees, investors and others can reveal trends.

“So many companies spend so much money to read their consumers or reach them through expensive media like advertising,” said Repogle of Burt’s Bees, which makes lip balms, lotions and other products with mostly natural ingredients. “Why not use this free, fast and informed medium?”

Burt’s Bees, for example, introduced a fig-colored lip balm last year after canceling the lipstick version. The decision was based almost entirely on feedback from the Hive, the company’s affectionately termed Web community of about 80,000 registered fans.

More than business postings

Not all blog posts are strategic in nature.

Monica Doss, president of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development in Durham, started blogging a year ago to reach people with whom she shared special interests such as art, literature and technology.

Doss was at Starbucks last week writing down ideas for a posting about Bono’s ties to venture investing and the Research Triangle area. She often posts several times a day on her organization’s blog and a personal one, “The Monica Chronicles.”

“It’s a creative outlet,” said Doss, who has a master’s degree in literature and writing. “It’s an opportunity to use language to connect dots.”

Ryan Allis, the 23-year-old CEO of iContact in Durham, uses his blog to reflect on his journey as a software entrepreneur. He also shares developments about his company that he thinks will educate clients.

“I believe in corporate transparency,” Allis said. “It builds evangelizing customers more than anything else.”

Asked whether blog posting could potentially compromise strategic information, he said, “Secrets are in execution, in my opinion, not really in ideas.”

Copyright © 2008, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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