Property Grunt

Friday, October 21, 2005

Property Grunt featured in Crain's New York

Below is a Crain’s article I was actually interviewed for by Julie Satow. Unfortunately the bulk of the conversation never appeared in the article and Ms. Satow only used a quote from one of my entries. However I am very aware from my experiences in media that due to deadline and space constraints Ms. Satow and her editor probably had to whittle it down a bit.

Below is the article itself and my analysis.

Attack of the blogs

Companies take steps to curb online diaries

By Julie Satow
Published on October 17, 2005

Hen Daren Hornig fired a member of his staff last month, he felt he had no choice but to take extreme action. The public relations executive for his real estate firm, Dwelling Quest, had been regaling online readersby dissing her colleagues and venting about her company's operations onher personal Web log.

"Keeping a blog wasn't the problem, it was what she wrote that was
inexcusable," says Mr. Hornig.

If you have read my previous entry regarding Kelly’s dismissal I never had a problem with Kelly’s dismissal. I was just outraged that her employer threatened legal action and demanded changes to her online diary after the firing. As far as I was concerned it smacked of a personal vendetta and he had already won the battle.

If you look over Kelly’s previous entries she does not mention her ex-employer’s name or identify the people she writes about. From my standpoint the motivation for a lawsuit was strictly out of malice.

As the blogosphere expands at an astounding rate--one out of every 20 Americans has created a blog, according to a study by Pew Internet & American Life Project-- executives are struggling with how to handle these personal musings that cover everything from dating habits to internal office politics.

The postings are forcing companies to weigh the benefits of freedom of speech against the damage caused by inappropriate employee conduct. As a result, many firms are considering whether to implement formal blogging policies, monitor employees' blogs, or even join the crowd by creating corporate blogs for employee use.

"This time last year, we were talking about instant messaging, and before that e-mail, but now it is all about blogging," says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, a consulting firm.

While still in its infancy, blogging is considered more dangerous to a company's image than its electronic predecessors because it disseminates information to such a potentially big audience. "The blogosphere is an electronic rumor mill," says Ms. Flynn, who is writing a book, Blogging Rules, to be published by Amacom Books next spring.

"If a negative comment or disparaging remark is made about a company or an employee, there is a potential that it is going to be picked up and be all over the blogosphere in a matter of hours."

In Mr. Hornig's case, the offending employee complained about her office mates, but companies are also concerned with employee blogs that dwell on the writer's personal life. Don Schroeder, a labor and employment lawyer at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, represented a company where an employee blogged about her sexual
habits,specifically the practice of swinging, or swapping partners.

"She had hyperlinked her blog to her employer's Web site, so it just became a matter of removing the hyperlink," Mr. Schroeder says.

Ok. That’s really messed up. If you are into being used as a human pin cushion by a group of soccer hooligans, that is entirely your choice. But I think it is best to keep that to yourself. And for gods sake having a preference for gangbangs is not something you want connected to your place of work.

Sound advice

To deal with the Wild West atmosphere of blogging, companies are asking the advice of workplace consultants and lawyers.

"Regardless of whether you are a publicly traded company or a small business with a handful of part-time employees, you should put a blogging policy in place," says Ms. Flynn. In her book, she suggests that companies forbid their employees from mentioning the name of the company, its products or any other information without prior approval.

Other experts say that companies should also regularly monitor blogs that discuss their firm by searching Technorati or Google's blog search engine.

Ms. Flynn reminds me of those experts who popped up during the dot come era to help people deal with their sudden windfall. I believe the term was called called Sudden Wealth Syndrome which was a racket involving these experts assisting these dot com millionaires in dealing with their new found success. Most likely done by charging these dot com millionaires exorbitant fees. All she is doing cashing in on the whole blog trend by writing a Miss Manners knock off.

It is a blog. Not the f**king Necronomicon.

You are not going to raise the army of darkness by blogging. Flynn is making this sound as if this is a national emergency and that if we don’t get control of these rampant bloggers it will be the end of civilization. She is probably making a ton of money doing seminars for corporations on the dangers of blogs just like those Accredited Staging Professionals who are basically glorified landscapers and movers. The problems that Ms. Flynn has “discovered” are ones that affect all mediums from print to television. Some people would call these problems “yellow journalism.” I would just say it comes with the territory. Look at the criticism regarding the Katrina coverage.

It turned a lot of the reports coming out of Katrina were false or exaggerated. It just means we have to be more vigilant in what we read and write. However I strongly disagree that there should be “union rules” regarding blogging. I can’t believe that someone actually gave this woman a book deal regarding blog etiquette. She might as well have written a book on how to conduct an elf orgy.

Another option is to join in by creating a corporate blog to provide employees with a forum to grouse about work and work-related issues in a controlled environment. Stonyfield Farm, Sun Microsystems and public relations firm Hill & Knowlton have all set up such sites, and a number of other companies are considering following their lead, experts say.

But some legal experts are advising companies that special blogging policies are unnecessary. Companies in New York are not required to provide a reason for firing someone unless the employee is part of a union, has an employment contract or is otherwise protected by anti-discrimination laws.

"Companies don't have to create a blogging policy," says Mr. Schroeder. "I could fire you because you have a bad attitude, which could be gleaned from what you wrote in your blog."

EXACTLY! In fact all an employer has to do is demand that their employees sign waivers and make it clear that if employees disseminate any information about the company through whatever form of media. Then the employee’s ass is grass and will be mowed down. So Flynn, pack up your bags and hawk your wares elsewhere.

Ladies' Home Journal used that line of reasoning when it ousted editor
Nadine Haobsh, after her identity was revealed as the blogger behind Jolie in NYC, a site devoted to gossip on the fashion and beauty industry. "[Our blogging policy] is subsumed within our general code of conduct," says a spokesman for Meredith Corp. which owns the publication. "We just made sure all of our employees are aware of what
it says."

When I read about Jolie I was not surprised she was canned. That area of media is straight out of “Heathers”. There is a clique of writers, editors and even interns that maintain a tight oligarchylike dominance. It is not business with these people. It is always personal. Even the most innocent of comments can be construed as an attack. And if they feel you have offended them, well get used to sitting in the other end of the cafeteria with the AV club.

Differing opinions

Bloggers themselves are divided over what corporate policies, if any, work best. Some, like blogger Property Grunt, believe attempts to control the content of a blog are unconstitutional. "Bloggers are master to no man, no corporation and no government," he wrote in a recent posting.

Other bloggers are less defiant. "A simple rule is to not blog about your job and to not blog during work hours," says Andrew Krucoff, the author of blogs and As a freelancer or publishing powerhouse Conde Nast, Mr. Krucoff, who had been a frequent contributor to media gossip site, has curtailed his blogging on media topics.

"I think people who blog about co-workers should be fired," Mr. Krucoff
says. "Just use your common sense, for goodness sake."

One day the Grunt’s identity will be revealed. Whether it is through doocing or by my own hand only time will tell. I do know when that day comes I will be relieved of my duties since it has happened to every blogger who has written about their job. I have to make it clear I have not committed any illegal acts through this blog. I have not identified the company I work for nor have I identified other brokers, sellers, buyers or other parties I have dealt with. However I know that the powers that be would take a very dim view of my entries particularly the ones that contradict the party line that brokers are indispensable. We’re not. Eventually a significant portion of our duties will be outsourced and even the super agents will be hard pressed to make the deals of yesteryear.

One may accuse me of being a hypocrite but I maintain this cover not only for my own privacy but also for my colleagues. Part of the broker’s job is to try and keep certain information about their buyers and sellers under wraps. However when you enter this business you quickly learn there are no secrets. Everyone knows everything about you and talks behind your back. One of the reasons why I have never indulged in any specific office gossip in my blog is the last thing I would want to happen is have a colleague of mine to lose a deal because of something they said in the office regarding a buyer or seller. My office is not always happiness and sunshine and when I leave the company, all bets are off. But I feel at this point that some things are best left unsaid.

I still stand by my quote in Crain’s. Bloggers should be allowed to exercise the right to write about whatever they want. It is because of this right that bloggers were the first to alert the public about Trent Lott's comments at Strom Thurmond's birthday party.

I do believe in free speech but I also believe that one needs to exercise a certain sense of responsibility. But the question lies what are the responsibilities of free speech? Who decides them? I think in a work environment, an employer expects a certain level of privacy particularly anything that relates to sensitive areas of their company and has every right to protect those interests through whatever legal means are available. Outside of the work environment is another story.

However can an employer forbid an employee from blogging? Let's say your boss finds out you blog about birdwatching. What if your boss tells you to shut it down out of fear that you might mention something about work. Surely that could happen. But does your boss have the right enforce these rules on your private life?

As history has shown the debate over free speech is one that has never really been resolved. It is sort of a work in progress. As far as I am concerned no book or company's policy will simply solve this issue. Perhaps it never will be. Who knows.