Why Jonathan Schwartz Should NOT Be Blogging

Interesting story on the Associated Press wire this morning about Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW) CEO Jonathan Schwartz and his blogging efforts, in which I am quoted rather extensively (albeit as “David Taylor”, which might have thrown a few people but for which my Mum is doubtless delighted): At communication’s vanguard, Sun CEO’s blog goes international. After talking about what a good job Jon’s doing with his blog and quoting my friend Debbie Weil, Rachel Konrad, the AP reporter, quotes me as saying:
“Nondisclosure agreements and financial regulations can turn the most literary CEOs into scribes who post rehashed speeches or press releases. CEOs may also lack the thick skin required for blogging, said Dave Taylor, an executive consultant in Boulder, Colo.”
I have more comments in the article, but thought it would be useful to expand on my thoughts here in the digital world where ink is cheap…

Last year I wrote a pretty controversial article for Global PR Week [Why CEO’s shouldn’t blog] wherein I noted that the zeal that some bloggers have (esp. Robert Scoble) to push CEOs and other executives into blogging and full public disclosure was often at odds with legal and financial constraints that limit the public actions of executives, particularly those of publicly traded companies.
The reality of Sarbanes-Oxley in the boardroom (see What is Sarbanes-Oxley? if you don’t know what that’s about) is yet another factor that I didn’t mention to the AP reporter, but the big point here is that when you look at legal issues, disclosure issues, competitive issues, and similar, there really are a lot of constraints that executives have to carefully step around before they can start thinking about any sort of public venue like a blog.
But there are even more reasons why you have to be judicious, as I point out further in the AP piece:
“One of the inevitabilities of blogging is that you get critical, hostile responses from trolls – people who post provocative things just to inflame a reaction,” Taylor said. “If you’re the CEO of a 5,000-employee company, you don’t need to be dealing with a troll.”
Let me define a troll here too: a troll is someone who posts critical or hostile comments purely to inflame the discussion or otherwise be provocative. They can be huge energy sinks if you’re not careful and I’m betting you have seen them show up.
The most important issue, however, is that the CEO is not the person in a company responsible for communicating with customers and the marketplace. Indeed, the traditional role of a Chief Executive Officer is to raise money. That’s it. They’re responsible for contributing to the strategic direction of the company, but most typically not the tactics.
Look at this another way: quick, how many CEOs can you name? How many from companies with more than $10 million in sales or more than 500 employees? I thought so.
Now you’ll understand why I also told Rachel that:
“As much as I’m impressed by Jonathan’s blog, I wonder how he has time to blog when he has a company that desperately needs management steered in the right direction,” Taylor said.
Of course, I realize that I’m still swimming upstream in the proverbial blogostream, and that Debbie, for example, is tightly focused on explaining why CEOs should blog. Heck, her domain name is Blog Write for CEOs.com, and Jonathan himself, CEO of Sun Microsystems “… shrugs off criticism, insisting that blogging makes sense at Sun, which develops computer and storage systems, high-speed microprocessors and software for operating network equipment for corporate clients.”
But let’s end this with a suggestion for how CEOs can get involved with the company blogging efforts, because I do believe they have an important voice, even if they shouldn’t run their own blog explicitly. How to get involved? Have a multi-author company blog and then have a monthly “Letter from the CEO”. Perfect! You can give the CEO a voice, but you can work through marketing, PR and legal, as necessary, to ensure that the message is consistent with the requirements of executive communications.
What do you think, dear reader?
Keep in mind that Sun Microsystems has had very tough times since the dotcom bust. As the AP story notes: “Sun’s annual revenue has declined in four of the past five years, and shares have plummeted from a high of about $64 in September of 2000 to around $5 this year.”
Is having the CEO blog truly the best way to utilize the time and expertise of the executive and turn things around?

Here are a few other places you can find the original AP story, in case the SJ Mercury requirement for you to register is too darn annoying:

6 comments on “Why Jonathan Schwartz Should NOT Be Blogging

  1. Well, we are not traditional anymore, and the functions of the ceo extends more than raising money.
    CEOs have a responsibility to insure the interests of the various stakeholders of a company which are the employees, shareholders, partners and customers.
    His chief job is to communicate, which a blog effectively does in a more direct manner.

  2. Jon Schwartz should not blog merely because he is an embarrassment to Sun and the server industry.
    He is childish, immature, and lacks any understanding of the hardware business.
    He is open, in a sense, but that only tends to expose his lack of understanding of the real world. His blog entries expose his view of the world as he wishes it to be perceived.
    Unfortunately, he is a very naive young pup in over his head, and does not know it yet.

  3. Dave, you did it again — got my gears turning.
    I agree with you — I don’t think most people know or care who the CEO is, but they do want to be able to establish some sense of useful human connection with someone at a company who’s up to the task of maintaining a constructive, interesting conversation worth following.
    Over at my blog, The Right Conversation, I’ve just posted my thoughts on what the core qualifications for a great corporate blogger really are — and it has nothing to do with having a corner office.
    See: Why Most CEOs Shouldn’t Blog
    And congrats on the AP coverage! Pity they couldn’t have included your URL. Ah, well, at least the Mercury-News version of the story did run a link to Schwartz’s blog — albeit way down at the bottom…

  4. Hi, Dave.
    I think it’s fine that Jonathan blogs. Blogging is not for everyone, though, I agree, and that’s a conclusion I’ve come to recently. So, I differ from Scoble in that regard. I used to advise everyone to blog, but I can see now that that was wrong. It just doesn’t make sense for everyone to blog. You have to want to, it has to come naturally, and it has to make sense for your job. But Schwartz is way ahead of most of us on communications issues, so for him it’s a pretty easy thing to do. Also, he has so much content at this fingertips from customer visits, partner engagements, company operations, executive meetings, speeches, etc, that I’m surprised that he’s not blogging more! I actually think he’d blog more often if he made his blogs shorter. No matter. I should talk, right? 🙂
    You ask, “Is having the CEO blog truly the best way to utilize the time and expertise of the executive and turn things around?”
    Well, I’d have to say that it’s part of it, yes. Absolutely. Just look at how much time an exec spends preparing for a launch, or a big speech, or an important press/analyst tour, or an earnings call. All of that time — which can be substantial — is considered normal preparation, right? No one questions that part of an executive’s schedule (depending on the style of the exec, I mean). Well, how is blogging any different? I see it as just part of his communications strategy, and we all know he does a lot of communicating. It comes natural to him. But it doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so I doubt we’ll see many CEO bloggers out there at big companies. Also, what you say about the legal and disclosure issues is important, so that’s another reason for so few CEO bloggers. I don’t see that as an issue for Schwartz, though. He can handle those issues quite nicely. But if he needs help from time to time on a legal point, at least our top lawyer has the perspective of an open blogger as well, since he just started blogging too.

  5. Dave,
    Thanks for your thoughts. You gave us a precise description of TODAYS business culture. (Well, even the average CEO of today might be hired for more than just raising money.)
    However, do you really think that enterprises and CEOs will stand still like this? No effects of all the Web2.0 stuff? No cultural change? Will employees have to stop blogging when they become managers? Or does this rule only apply for CEOs? Everyone has a public voice but the CEO?
    Can you really imagine a successful CEO in 2020 without a personal blog?
    I can’t. So I started my own CEO blog recently.

  6. Glad to hear it, Soeren, but yes, just as we have had company CEOs who for years have been behind the curtains, running things, we will undoubtedly have CEOs in the future who aren’t out in the public arena, online or off.
    Further, note that even in the case of Jon Schwartz, he’s a geek and loves blogging, but even he is basically too busy to post more than once a month or so. That being the case, why not have savvy blog-friendly colleagues like Jim Grisanzio also post on the same blog, rather than separating everything out? And that was my point in the first place: have the CEO *contribute* but don’t expect her/him to be an active blogger.
    One more related thought: Remember Peter Jackson’s blogging efforts when he was making King Kong? If you do, you’ll recall that it seemed like Peter and his production crew just “found time” every day to post a few sentences and a weekly 2-5 minute film snippet. Surprise! I just found out that he had FIVE full-time bloggers on staff managing that process. It’s really not as easy and smooth as it seems….

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