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Blogging and the Role of the CEO

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Dave Taylor has been steadfast in his belief that CEOs should not blog. Period. End of discussion. He said so last year during Global PR Blog Week, and reiterated his belief in a post to his Intuitive Systems blog.

Dave makes a number of points to support his belief, but it all comes down to this:

The traditional role of a Chief Executive Officer is to raise money. That’s it.

The problem with Dave’s premise is that this simply is not true.

About 20 years ago, I met a successful Fortune 500 CEO of a thriving company who was speaking at a conference. I’ve never forgotten what he told the audience. The initials CEO may stand for Chief Executive Officer, he said, but they also stand for “Customers, Employees, and Owners.” These, he said, are a CEO’s principal audiences. It is the CEO’s job to communicate effectively with these audiences to support the big-picture goals of the company.

This perspective is reinforced by any number of resources. Former GE CEO Jack Welch, for example, wrote this in Chapter 24 of his autobiography (the chapter is titled, “What This CEO Thing Is All About”) as paraphrased in a business journal article:

The organization takes its cue from the person on top-his/her personal intensity determines their organization’s intensity. It also implies being visible, building relationships and not only being a picture in the annual report.

Here, “visibility” is the key word. In a study of five CEOs in middle-to-large firms, Dr. Henry Mintzberg (professor of Management at Montreal’s McGill University) “recorded all the activities that each performed during one week of intensive observation-a total of 368 verbal contacts and 890 pieces of mail during the five weeks.” His analysis resulted in 10 roles that feel into three categories. The “interpersonal” group, he wrote, covers work that involves interpersonal contact for its own sake. At the top of that list: “figurehead,” the CEO’s duty to stand as a symbol for the organization. There’s also the “leader” role and the “liaison” role.

Accenture surveyed 250 executives to determine that, among other things, that CEO integrity is of critical importance. They also believe that developing and retaining the best people is a top priority for CEOs. And, “Respondents look to their CEOs primarily for integrity, positive role model, and vision, not day-to-day management skills or job security.”

All of these citations-and most of the others that address the CEO’s role-make it clear that the CEO’s job requires considerable public communication. A blog is merely one tool a CEO can use to communicate, if it suits his or her style, the nature of the company’s audiences, and the issues the organization faces. Blogging is a new tool a CEO can opt to use for some of his communication responsibilities, replacing time he formerly spent using less effective channels. In total, though, he need spend no more time communicating today than before blogs emerged.

As for Dave’s assertion that trolls (which he accurately defines as “people who post provocative things just to inflame a reaction”), there is no need for a CEO to deal with them. Permitting their comments reflects the blogs credibility, but there is no need to respond to a troll’s (or anybody else’s, for that matter) comments. General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz does not respond directly to any comments on the Fastlane blog. If he responds to comments at all, he does so in subsequent posts to the blog, an entirely acceptable practice that does allow a leader to engage in the social media conversation, something companies (and their figureheads and leader) will increasingly need to do. But nobody expects somebody at that level-or higher-to spend time crafting responses to each individual comment, especially when a single post generates hundreds of comments.

Lutz’s staff aggregates and categorizes comments, though, giving Lutz unfiltered feedback to his posts, which he considers more valuable than any other type of research by virtue of the fact that it is unfiltered.

Dave also raises regulatory concerns. That’s an easy issue to address. Nobody-not the CEO, not a front-line employee-should ever blog anything that violates regulations. A GM employee told me that Lutz does not allow company lawyers to review his posts, asserting that as Vice Chairman, he already knows what he can and cannot say in public. The fact that he is writing a blog and not, for example, giving a TV news interview, does not diminish his ability to know the difference. Fastlane has never caused GM any regulatory problems. (Nor has the blog by Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz, for that matter, or any other CEO blog I’m aware of. If they had, it would have made headlines.)

The fact that a CEO can blog does not mean he necessarily should. Any leaders should play to his strengths, and if writing isn’t one of them, blogging may not be for that leader. It doesn’t bother me that Lutz-GM’s top car guy-is the company’s highest-ranking blogger and that CEO Rick Wagoner does not have a blog (although he has posted to the Fastlane blog). But Dave’s assertion that no CEO should ever blog is just wrong. Given the requirement that a CEO serve as the company’s chief representative to key publics (customers, employees, owners), no CEO should ever dismiss out of hand any communication tool that may serve him and his company well.

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.

Blogging and the Role of the CEO
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