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A Case Study in Good Policy Blogging: AT&T

by mturk

Mashable ran a post last week titled “15 Excellent Corporate Blogs To Learn From” that was really quite good.  The post looked mostly at marketing components like choosing a design, showcasing your products, highlighting your company’s expertise, and more.

There was no discussion, however, of how these companies use their blogs to engage in public policy debates.  I decided to write a post that looks at a good example of a corporate blog focused on policy debates.

Around the time of the Mashable post, news of the Verizon-Google net neutrality proposal surfaced and many of the free culture bloggers were apoplectic over the wireless exemption.  In response, Joan Marsh wrote a piece for AT&T’s policy blog explaining why VZ and Google were right – wireless is different.

Reaction to Marsh’s post ranged from the reasoned to the spastic.

AT&T just doesn’t want consumer protections for wireless. Why? They might prevent AT&T from crippling vendor handsets so users are forced to use AT&T bloatware, or forcing users to pay more for certain services. Consumer protections also might prevent AT&T from blocking applications that either compete with their own services, or say the services of a giant preferred advertising partner with a colorful and whimsical logo. Such protections might restrict AT&T’s shiny new pricing model as well, which involves fairly unreasonably-low caps of 200 MB and 2GB.

For most public policy blogs, that might have been the last word in the story, however.  In this case, that was just the beginning.  Yesterday, Marsh took to the blog again.  Not only did she acknowledge the critical reply, she challenged it directly.

I got a lot of reaction to my original blog entitled Wireless is Different.  Some good, some critical, but all of it important to the debate.  I welcomed it all, especially the responses from those that disagreed, because it creates an opportunity for a better explanation, a more detailed understanding of what’s actually happening out there on our wireless networks.

Some just are not convinced that wireless is in fact different in any way that matters to the net neutrality debate.  While they didn’t rebut the fundamental points I made regarding the finite nature of wireless network capacity, they viewed the argument as a strawman for some underlying intent by wireless network providers to block apps and services at their whim.

The exchange illustrates four points I think are critical to corporations looking to engage in policy blogging.

There Are Few Experts More Knowledgeable Than Your Company

The fact is, for all the armchair quarterbacks running blogs that are critical of any industry, the people that know the most about that industry are the ones making it run.  If your company takes those people out of the debate because they are afraid of what they might say, your side has just lost the best defenders it will ever have.

In the case of AT&T’s blog, they have created a platform for their senior people to directly address, and challenge, the misinformation so often present in reporting of any kind.

Let’s face it.  Your average blogger/reporter may cover a beat, but chances are pretty good that they’re a liberal arts major looking at incredibly challenging engineering discussions.  It is rare that engineers start a blog, but when they do, they often have a depth of experience or understanding that will only be matched by your people.  Let them speak.

That advice, by design, raises the question of how to balance the communicator’s desire to speak with the lawyer’s desire to mitigate risk.  The balance between allowing someone to talk, and making sure they stay on message is a delicate one.  Accepting some level of risk is necessary to engage in the debate.

Avoid “Fire and Forget” Policies

As I said, on many policy blogs, corporations would have been content to provide the initial post and then would have walked away.  If their piece generated an article in a mainstream publication, that would have been seen as a success – even if it generated heaps of criticism online.

This is a misguided approach for a simple reason.  Getting that hit in the Wall Street Journal is great for today.  But what is left behind on the Internet tomorrow will be all the blog posts challenging your position.  Those are the articles web users will find when they look to get educated about the debate.

Build Credibility By Being Engaged

There is a saying in the social media world: Media is easy, being social is the hard part.

Anyone can create a blog, or Twitter account, or Facebook page.  Getting people to pay attention requires vigilance and sincere engagement in the online discussion.  Talking with, reacting to, and noticing other participants in the debate is how you give credibility to your own views.  You must be prepared to discuss and defend your ideas.

Marsh shows great form by not only acknowledging her detractors, but linking to their opposing view, and addressing it directly.  She held her ground, while engaging in respectful disagreement.  While that isn’t always the way things work in a land of trolls, she keeps her focus on the debate.

This Discussion Doesn’t End At The Water Cooler

I have heard the comparison of the Internet to a digital water cooler, where people gather to discuss hot topics. I take issue with that, to some degree.

While we do, indeed, use the Internet to gather and discuss, the Internet is different in one critical way.  When you finish your conversation at the water cooler, the faint echo of your words off the closest cubicle wall is the end of it.

Online, every such discussion is a part of the permanent record of our people.  When historians look back at the discussion and debate over public policy, they will find the academics, the opposition, the elected officials, and the public discussion fairly represented.  They may not, however, have an accurate record of the arguments made by companies in defense of their policy positions.

They may find talking points and carefully parsed legal language, but they will not hear the voice of your company.  For that reason alone, using your policy blog to make your case, to both your audience and to future perspective, is critical.

The AT&T case is a good example of the type of discussion companies can foster using their policy blog.  On all four of these measures, the defense of the wireless exemption provides a window into the company’s thinking.

In coming weeks I also plan to provide a list of the best policy blogs operated by companies – highlighting those that effectively communicate the company’s agenda and contribute to the larger discussion in a productive way.

(Disclosure Statement: One of CRAFT’s partners is a paid consultant to an organization of which AT&T is a member.   AT&T is not a CRAFT | Media/Digital client. CRAFT was not compensated in any way for this post, nor was AT&T aware of it before publication.)