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To blog or not to blog: this new communication tool is catching on in Europe--but tread carefully.

Is blogging the next big communication medium? Increasingly, this is the question on the mind of many a professional communicator in Europe. A cursory look at the corporate landscape reveals that blogging has already crossed the Atlantic and is here to stay.

Although statistics for European weblogs are incomplete, estimates run as high as 5 million (still way below the more than 10 million in the U.S.), with France leading the pack with about 3 million, according to preliminary data gathered by the French blogging expert Loic Le Meur. In a study released in May, Hamburg-based Proximity Germany, the international customer relationship agency of the BBDO Group, estimated the number of blogs in Germany at 150,000 and growing. Yet the same study found that just 27 percent of German Internet users even know the meaning of the word blog, and only 8 percent use blogs at all.

For European corporations using or contemplating setting up blogs, the field is already sown with mines. JAMBA!, for example, a German provider of subscription-based ring tones for mobile phones, suffered an unpleasant surprise last January. After accusations of unethical sales practices had surfaced on several private German blogs, JAMBA! employees struck back by trying to seed those same blogs with company-friendly statements. IP address tracking revealed their true allegiance. As a result, JAMBA! got acres of controversial publicity in the mainstream German press.

This serves as a cautionary tale for professional communicators. Ignorance of blogging and a lack of proper ways to handle hostile blogs can be dangerous. In an interview with the German online magazine medienhandbuch.de, Ann-Christin Zilling, PR director of OgilvyOne Worldwide in Germany, warned colleagues that "there is no doubt that you have to monitor blogs as part of your market and public opinion research. The thing you should never let happen: employees from a company or an agency planting commercial messages anonymously. The damage would be enormous."

The way of the blog

Though the European media and even some politicians blog, it seems that business on the continent is holding back.

There are different reasons for this. Some companies are still not fully aware of the existence of blogs, and if they are, they seem not to have a clear perspective on their potential. Then there's the technical side--companies don't have enough trained personnel to handle blogs. Other reasons for companies' reluctance to embrace blogs may be related to culture. Nevertheless, there are some good examples of corporate blogs in Europe. In Germany, for example, one of the very few blue-chip companies to deploy blogs is the business software provider SAP. The IT giant started its SAP Executive Blogs (www.sap.com/community/pub /blogs.epx) back in July 2003, providing straightforward communication directly from several members of the SAP executive board. In contrast to personal blogs, the SAP Executive Blogs are not daily thought collections. Instead, they focus on content that is of strategic relevance to SAP's customers. They are integrated into the online SAP Community and accessible on the company's external web page. SAP Community members have the option to respond to these blogs with their own comments, which are not edited.

Throughout Europe, the U.S. PR agency Waggener Edstrom has dedicated consultants who help companies establish a presence in the blogosphere. The agency creates programs to integrate blogging elements into overall strategic communication initiatives, helps companies establish their own blogs, and provides crisis communication counsel as it relates to the blogging community.

Says Shaun Wootton, general manager of Waggener Edstrom Germany: "Blogging presents a tremendous opportunity for companies that wish to establish closer ties with their customers, partners and other constituents, but it must be done in an authentic manner that offers a unique point of view and puts a human face on your brand."

Fostering social networking

The BBC has also been an early adopter of internal blogs. There are now about 70 such blogs, from group blogs for project teams to personal blogs. Recently Richard Sambrook, director of Global News and World Service, started writing his own blog, sometimes posting several times a day. The BBC even maintains a special department, BBC DigiLab, that takes care of technology and helps educate staff about its use. It was DigiLab that spearheaded the deployment of internal blogs as part of its efforts to manage employee communities of interest.

Russell Grossman, the head of internal communications at the BBC, says blogs are helping create a better sense of openness around the organization, as well as making the place feel smaller. "And because the BBC is such a rich and diverse place," he says, "bloggers actually have lots of interesting material to share. We're seeing both blogs and the internal wiki as emerging channels whose importance will rise over time. As the communications environment gets even faster and more complex, these channels are also becoming communication tools for translating a complex environment into something which feels simple and accessible."

Tips for corporate bloggers

There is not an easy answer as to whether your company should start blogging. The first step is to become aware of the potential of blogs and other new technologies. Private blogs are a seismograph of public opinion. Don't forget that not all your stakeholders have Internet access. On the other hand, bloggers make up a new and highly active stakeholder group that demands a new set of skills in communicating with them.

If you do decide to start a corporate blog, keep in mind the following points:

* Monitor the blogs of competitors and key industry media, as well as those of strong-opinioned private individuals commenting on your industry.

* Integrate blogs into your communication plan. Blogs make for a good tool of dialogue and interaction only when they are part of the communication mix.

* Determine who is responsible for any blogs. Be aware that maintaining corporate blogs can be time-consuming and can sometimes generate negative comments. Designate a primary blogger and a backup.

* Keep in mind that areas such as product development or recruitment are among the best for starting a blog.

* Don't seed blogs that are hostile to your company with anonymous positive entries.

* Get approval from communications, legal and other relevant functions before content representing the company goes online.

RELATED ARTICLE: Portugal blogs on.

Blogging has arrived in Portugal--in likely and unlikely places. We have all heard of Internet cafes, but bars using blogs to talk to their customers seem to be a novelty. Yet this is happening in Lisbon, where the bar of one of the most important theaters launched a blog (www .bar-a-barraca.blogspot.com) to publicize the cultural events it hosts, publish poetry and comment on what is going on in society.

According to a survey by Marktest Magazine, more than 620,000 domestic Internet users in Portugal spent 840,000 hours blogging in 2004. They visited a total of 57 million blog pages, with an average of 95 blogs per user. The average Portuguese blogger is male, is between 15 and 34 years old, and lives in an urban area (32.1 percent in metropolitan Lisbon). Portugal is a country of 11 million people, with 30 percent of the population concentrated around Lisbon.

The Portuguese can use the blog http://quadraturadocirculo .blogs.sapo.pt to ask questions of the representatives of the country's three most important political parties. The blog is an initiative of a popular national TV program featuring political debates. A theater company has been using www .pancadademoliere.blogspot.com to mobilize political efforts against the government's method of allotting funds to theater.

Portugal's most popular blogs are www.blogger.com, with 193,000 users; www.photoblog .com, with 115,000 users; and www.gatofedorento.blogspot.pt, with 77,000 users. The tools used most often in the country to create blogs are www.blogger .com, www.blogs.sapo.pt (created by the nation's most popular search engine, www.sapo.pt) and www.weblog.com.pt (powered by a popular computer store).

--Mafalda Eiro-Gomes & Joao Duarte

RELATED ARTICLE: Taking publics public.

New forms of association are possible these days thanks to the Internet. People sharing ideas get together to form new publics. Publics can also be groups of people confronted with an issue who don't agree on the best way to deal with it and are willing to discuss it. What communication professionals and employers have to take into account is that publics have an ability to mobilize people in cyberspace.

Publics have become key players in democracies because they have the power to act collectively in meaningful ways and exert influence on political leaders. They pursue precise agendas and develop specific communication strategies. For example, when the Madrid train bombings occurred in March 2004, citizens used millions of SMS (short-message service) messages to express their criticism of the government, which initially tried to blame the Basque separatist group ETA rather than Al Qaeda for the attacks, in a desperate attempt not to jeopardize the upcoming elections. The technology mobilized hundreds' of thousands of Spaniards to participate in a large protest march through the streets of the capital.

Communicators should spend some time reflecting on the kinds of publics that might be interested in their companies and deciding with which ones they want to interact. It is worth checking e-mails, faxes and letters as well as phone registries to look for signs of a new public emerging. Another sign could be a request for a meeting from a group with which the company has never interacted before.

--Mafalda Eiro-Gomes & Joao Duarte

Velin Velkov is a communications consultant to the German software company SAP. He is also director of communications for IABC/Europe and Middle East Region and editor of the IABC/Europe newsletter.
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Title Annotation:TECHNOLOGY
Author:Velkov, Velin
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:1620
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