pen_cmoWhen I worked as a journalist, I had an “imaginary reader.” My model was my brother. He’s a civil engineer, and he’s interested in technology but doesn’t follow technology day in and day out. I imagined myself writing for him -- a smart guy who wants a quick summary so he can stay up to speed. My job, as I saw it, was to do the heavy lifting of reporting this stuff out so that I could provide readers with that information.

    At HubSpot we do something similar. We have buyer personas that we’re selling to. On our blog we write to those same personas. What does a mid-level marketing person want or need to know? What does a CMO find interesting?

    Think of the constituencies you need to to address -- customers, employees, the world at large, investors. Put yourself in their shoes, imagine what they might find interesting or useful, and start there.

    You also need to think about the opposite question: What should we not write? Are there topics or subjects that are off-limits? Can we write about competitors? In general I think it’s a bad idea to bash a rival on your corporate blog. It might be fun, but it could also make you seem petty. Praising a competitor, on the other hand, could be a really smart move.

    What about praising your own company? Done well, and selectively, it comes across as charming. Done poorly, or done too often, and it can seem annoying and can even backfire. What about criticizing our own company? That’s when you move into trickier territory, but again, when done well, it can actually help the company. Robert Scoble was one of the first high-profile corporate bloggers. He worked at Microsoft from 2003 to 2006, and made a name for himself by daring to criticize the company.

    One example came in 2006, when Microsoft agreed to censor a Chinese blogger at the request of the Chinese government. Scoble made news when he dared to stand up and say: “The behavior of my company in this instance is not right.” Scoble’s criticism poured fuel on the fire and created a controversy for Microsoft.

    Microsoft’s PR department and top management probably did not relish the idea of having a Microsoft blogger criticizing Microsoft in public. But the company did not silence Scoble or censor him. Being willing to accept criticism made Microsoft look stronger, not weaker; better, not worse. It showed that Microsoft knew it was faced with difficult decisions and was willing to be transparent about how it was making those choices.

    Many newspapers hire an ombudsman (or “public editor” at the New York Times) whose job is to criticize the paper and call out editors and writers when they make a mistake. Newspapers don’t hire ombudsmen because they love the abuse. They do it because being willing to criticize themselves helps establish their credibility.

    Of course, corporate blogs are not the same as newspapers. Rules about editorial independence will vary from one company to another. The job of writers and editors is to keep the editorial process honest and perhaps, at times, to stretch limits, as would happen in a traditional news outlet.

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