Interactive Feature: Corporate Speak

It was Monday, Feb. 19, and JetBlue, the airline that has sold itself to consumers on the promise it would “bring humanity back to air travel,” was in the midst of a PR crisis that threatened the 7-year-old company’s very existence. Following the Valentine’s Day ice storm that had stranded airplanes on the tarmac for hours—and cascaded into days of major flight cancellations—David Neeleman, the company’s founder and CEO, in a show of honesty and public contrition that’s rare among CEOs, told The New York Times he was “humiliated and mortified” by his airline’s collapse.

But on his blog, titled “David Neeleman’s flight log,” the company’s skies were still as blue as they had been before the storm. In a Feb. 1 posting—the most recent on the site—Neeleman crowed, “We are turning our business around and proving that you can bring humanity back to air travel.” It wasn’t until Feb. 22 that a new posting appeared. “We are sorry and embarrassed,” it said. “But most of all, we are deeply sorry.”

Blogging may seem as necessary as breathing to millions of people who use the online publishing form to spout their views, but when it comes to the CEO’s office, as the Neeleman example shows, blogging, if it’s done at all, doesn’t come very naturally.

Indeed, despite all the talk about how companies need to have a dialogue with customers —it was brought up yet again several weeks ago at the 4A’s Media Conference by Procter & Gamble chief marketing officer Jim Stengel—only a handful of CEOs, outside of the technology industry, are blogging. The list broadens a bit when senior management is included, and a bit more when corporate blogs are counted, but almost three years after the term “blog” became commonplace, corporate blogging hasn’t taken the world by storm.

As for the CEOs, Bill Marriott, chairman and CEO, as well as son of the founder of hotel chain Marriott International, started one in January. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey just posted to his last week—for the first time since Nov. 9. And when it comes to Neeleman’s blog, it might not actually be one since it doesn’t accept comments. (The company didn’t return calls for this story.) After that, the list of CEOs at blue-chip companies becomes a list of the usual suspects: Jonathan Schwartz, CEO and president of Sun Microsystems; Bob Parsons, CEO of; Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. In fact, the likelihood of the CEO to post goes down as the number of employees in a company goes up.

According to a study conducted late last year by Omnicom Group’s Porter Novelli and social networking analysis company TNS Media Intelligence/Cymfony, companies of more than 100 people were the least likely to have a CEO blogging, with public relations and product management executives being the most likely to post. As of last October, according to a Wiki tracking Fortune 500 bloggers, only 8 percent of the Fortune 500 was blogging. “A lot of companies are really fearful of having blogs,” says Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research. They have to, she adds, “overcome this huge perception of risk.”

Why is blogging such a rarity among CEOs and major corporations? Those who watch the market say it’s a mix of trepidation (what if people criticize me?), the time commitment (what if it takes me too long to answer comments?), puzzlement over how to measure ROI, fear of an open and honest dialogue with customers, and, of course, the concern that the CEO might have nothing interesting to say.

For now, though there’s little firm data, CEO blogging is probably far more of an internal communications tool, because employees usually have a strong interest in what the CEO has to say. Says Mark Penn, who blogs internally as CEO of WPP Group’s Burson-Marsteller, “I basically thought if we were going to recommend these things to clients, we had to live them internally.”

But when it comes to external blogging, Jim Nail, chief, strategy and marketing at Cymfony, who co-authored the Porter Novelli study, says that focusing on whether it’s the CEO who is posting—as opposed to other employees—is the wrong way to look at it: What really matters is whether the blog is saying something interesting to consumers.

Maybe that’s why among the thin ranks of CEOs who have their own, external blogs, all have one thing in common: they are iconic, the kinds of CEOs that people want to hear from. Neeleman, Parsons and Mackey all founded their companies, Schwartz is revered among the technology elite, and Marriott is part of a culture that’s been steeped in listening to customers long before blogs came on the scene. “Marriott as a company is so tuned into feedback,” says Kathleen Matthews, evp, global communications and public affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based hotel chain, who convinced her boss to blog. “We put questionnaires in hotel rooms, and we’re constantly asking our customers, ‘How are we doing?'”

Being tech savvy isn’t a job requirement for the CEO who blogs successfully, but honesty, and a commitment to ongoing dialogue, is. A February posting from Marriott on the company’s decision to make all of its North American hotels smoke-free has elicited 112 comments and trackbacks so far, and Marriott said in his post, “One of our very best customers who smokes said, ‘I’ll never come back to a Marriott.’ Well, that’s a tough pill for us to swallow.” He posts, on average, twice a week, and has covered everything from President Bush’s State of the Union remarks on immigration reform (of interest to the company’s immigrant workers) to a suicide bomb attack at a Marriott hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, which killed a security guard. Two months old, the blog receives about 5,000 visitors with each new post.

One almost universal distinction of the corporate blog is that it defies the rigid planning that gives structure to most other marketing efforts. Angela Vargo, a senior specialist in business development at Southwest Airlines, who oversees and posts to that company’s blog, says that what it covers depends on “the flow of events.” Southwest’s CEO, Gary C. Kelly, contributes to the blog, “Nuts About Southwest,” every now and then, but for most harried CEOs, that may be enough. “To set up a CEO as a full-time blogger is a disaster waiting to happen,” says Tom Troja, vp, marketing and business development for Pajamas Media, a network of prominent blogs.

As with Marriott, Kelly has addressed anything and everything—from the company’s decision to toy with assigned seating (612 comments since June of last year) to what he should dress up as for the airline’s annual Halloween party. He went as Capt. Jack Sparrow, suggested by a commenter named Jules. But most of the posts on the blog are written by 15 or 20 employee bloggers, who were selected because they represented a broad spectrum of jobs at the airline. If any corporate blog is meant to be an extension of the brand it represents, as Southwest believes its blog is, then one featuring only top-down pronouncements from the CEO of the airline seems antithetical. “Our culture is that of [being] fun loving, very people oriented, consumer focused,” Vargo says.

What matters much more than who’s posting is that corporate blogs “sit inside a strategy,” says Marijean Lauzier, CEO of W2 Group’s Digital Influence Corp., founded by former Weber Group founder Larry Weber. Such is the case with McDonald’s blog, “Open for Discussion,” which, instead of focusing on the chain’s latest promotion, talks about corporate social responsibility, or CSR. Bob Langert, the company’s vp for corporate responsibility and chief blogger, may riff on his trip to a sustainable fish summit, but his colleague, Rich Floersch, McDonald’s chief human resources officer, recently posted about the book My Secret Life on the McJob, in which a college professor worked undercover at a number of fast-food places. The company plans to expand its list of guest bloggers going forward.

If it looks unlikely that the Internet will ever be swimming with blogs coming straight from the executive suite, there is, of course, a counterpoint, and that’s Sun Microsystems’ Schwartz, and, in fact, the entire corporation he leads. The company has been encouraging its employees to blog in an initiative that began three years ago—so far 4,000 of its 35,000 employees actively blog. Visiting feels like you are walking the company’s halls; it contains snippets of business, whimsy and personal interests that have little to do with the workplace. On a recent Thursday, there were musings about CompUSA’s decision to close half of its stores, International Women’s Day and the first OpenSolaris Developers Conference centering around Sun’s Solaris operating system. (There is no vetting of posts and few guidelines, other than not to disclose financial information.)

While some might view Sun’s blogging as the most massive corporate time-wasting initiative ever, Sun company officials say that blogging fits neatly into its open-source philosophy, in which the company shares code for its products with outsiders. The blogs help Sun get needed outside input on product development and portray it as an integral part of the tech community. “We like to share and be open and be more or less transparent,” says Ingrid Van Den Hoogen, svp, brand, global communications and integrated marketing at Sun.

To many corporations, particularly publicly held ones, the thought of letting employees blog raises concerns that corporate initiatives will be revealed, or that the company will violate Reg FD, the regulation put forward by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2000 that mandates that corporations must disclose information to all shareholders at the same time. So far, Sun has had “zero” incidents of that sort, says Van Den Hoogen, and other companies, with much more limited blogging programs, report no problems as well.

Sun’s Schwartz has been pushing to make corporate Web sites fit under the umbrella of “widespread dissemination” that Reg FD requires, and he’s used his blog to tell people. In October, Schwartz posted to his blog a letter to Christopher Cox, chairman of the SEC, asking Cox to reexamine whether posting on blogs or corporate Web sites would satisfy Reg FD. Cox, who is a fan of the Internet’s ability to communicate to investors, responded cordially, posting to Schwartz’s blog in a back and forth that one commenter on the blog rightly described as “astounding.” The dialogue continues, with Schwartz’s posting of another letter he sent to Cox on March 8, this time offering a list of guidelines for how corporate Web sites could be used to satisfy Reg FD.

As of this writing, Cox hasn’t responded, but when he does, we’re sure to hear about it—on Schwartz’s blog.

Catharine P. Taylor writes about interactive media for Adweek Magazines. Adweek senior writer Joan Voight also contributed to this story.