Barry, an EMC employee, graciously responded to yesterday’s post on free speech on both his blog and in a comment. Tony Pearson, an IBM employee, also pointed to IBM’s wiki-generated – walk the talk! – IBM blogging policy and guidelines.

However, a fundamental difference remains: Barry wants “corporate-sponsored” bloggers subject to the rules of commercial speech and I don’t. More on that below.

IBM guidelines
I like the IBM guidelines and so I’m reposting their summary of them:

Guidelines for IBM Bloggers: Executive Summary

  1. Know and follow IBM’s Business Conduct Guidelines.
  2. Blogs, wikis and other forms of online discourse are individual interactions, not corporate communications. IBMers are personally responsible for their posts. Be mindful that what you write will be public for a long time — protect your privacy.
  3. Identify yourself — name and, when relevant, role at IBM — when you blog about IBM or IBM-related matters. And write in the first person. You must make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of IBM.
  4. If you publish a blog or post to a blog and it has something to do with work you do or subjects associated with IBM, use a disclaimer such as this: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”
  5. Respect copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws.
  6. Don’t provide IBM’s or another’s confidential or other proprietary information.
  7. Don’t cite or reference clients, partners or suppliers without their approval.
  8. Respect your audience. Don’t use ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, etc., and show proper consideration for others’ privacy and for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory — such as politics and religion.
  9. Find out who else is blogging on the topic, and cite them.
  10. Don’t pick fights, be the first to correct your own mistakes, and don’t alter previous posts without indicating that you have done so.
  11. Try to add value. Provide worthwhile information and perspective.

Note points 2 & 3 above. They are critical.

“Hard cases make bad law”
Barry makes much of the recent case of a Hitachi blogger on the Hitachi website who made inaccurate statements about a new product. Barry posted about it and the Hitachi blogger made corrections.

Isn’t that how the blogosphere is supposed to work? Assuming the blogger acknowledged the mistakes and changes in an update, then what is the problem? We’re in violent agreement that accurate information is a Good Thing, and that individuals should take responsibility for their screw-ups.

But Barry wants to take it a step further and place corporate bloggers under the rules of advertising rather than personal speech, broadening the legal liability for mistakes to the company’s deep pockets.

But IMHO, a corporate blogger also has an ethical and fiduciary responsibility for factual representation of his company’s products and services in his or her blog, to the same level of accuracy as her/his company would require for any other logo’d collateral they produce.

That’s my position: Plain and simple.

And that’s where I disagree. I’ll talk about that and then ask the interesting question: what is really going on here?

All in favor of “unethical” blogging stop reading now
What Barry is arguing for, intentionally or not, is for blogs on corporate sites to be treated as advertising rather than individual expression. There are a couple of fallacies behind this position:

  1. The “same level of accuracy” as logo’d material argument implies something that isn’t true: that logo’d collateral is legally required to be factual. The common use of the “specifications subject to change without notice” qualifier belies this. The legal construct of puffery is an important qualifier. The common use of words such as “up to” which imply but do not promise – good thing too! – is another tactic to limit accuracy. There are bright line limits on commercial speech, but not many. Perhaps corporate bloggers should adopt disclaimers to avoid liability for mistakes.
  2. It assumes that customers rely on blog posts for factual information about products and services. Is it reasonable to trust a blog post, even by a CTO or company founder, over the formal, reviewed-by-everyone statements in data sheets, press releases, product descriptions, change lists and SE presentations?

Corporate bloggers should be factual and I expect them to correct mistakes. Being human, they will make mistakes. The larger question is: is blogging on corporate sites a Good Thing? Because if we make individual expression a subject for lawsuits – and that is where Barry’s approach leads – we won’t have it, and I think that would be a terrible disservice to customers and the industry.

What we would have instead is the watered down, homogenized expression we find on most corporate websites, i.e. PR. Is that what we want?

What is this really about?
As Beth Pariseau reported in an article last month

Though EMC officials have been whispering elsewhere, the j’accuse duties were formally performed by a blogger, Barry A. Burke, who wrote a thorough criticism of HDS’s thin provisioning July 10.

So let me get this straight:

  • An EMC employee who is an “unofficial” blogger, publishes the critique that other unnamed EMC officials have been “whispering” elsewhere.
  • The “unofficial” blogger pushes for legal restraints on corporate bloggers.
  • No comment on the ethics of using “unofficial” but loyal corporati to stick it your employer’s competitors.

Free speech for unofficial bloggers too
Barry hasn’t done anything wrong that I can see. It appears that his critique of a feature that EMC won’t have for another 6-9 months is factual and sincere. I don’t know enough about him to know if his analysis is his work product or not, but I’m willing to believe it is.

But this situation does raise a concern: will companies start encouraging and rewarding employees who go after competitors in blog posts and comments? EMC has a well-deserved reputation for bare-knuckle sales tactics, and what is storage blogging but selling by another name? To EMC management, anyway.

The StorageMojo take
EMC’s “command and control” management culture is antithetical to the hierarchy-flattening effects of networks and social media. EMC’s management no doubt sees the traffic and the higher recognition of competitor executives who blog. Dave Hitz and Hu Yoshida are genuinely nice guys, very smart, and that comes through in their blogs.

EMC, of all storage companies, would benefit by presenting a human face to customers and the industry. Their past arrogance is well-remembered by many.

They’d also do well to emulate IBM’s approach: encourage everyone to blog so EMC bloggers become part of the landscape rather than an object of curiosity. If it happens will EMC bloggers, official or not, ever be anything less than rabid company partisans?

Comments welcome, of course.