By RACHEL KONRAD
The Associated Press
Saturday, September 16, 2006; 10:45 PM
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- At the helm of Sun Microsystems Inc., Jonathan Schwartz became "un blogeur" last week when he started publishing his blog in French and nine other languages.
Schwartz, whose Web journal attracts 50,000 viewers each month, says going international will generate new customers and attract prospective employees in Europe, China and elsewhere. That puts the 40-year-old CEO at the vanguard of a trend in corporate communications, one that tears down barriers between executives and the general public.
"The blog has become for me the single most effective vehicle to communicate to all of our constituencies _ developers, media, analysts and shareholders," Schwartz said in his Silicon Valley office. "When I go out and have dinner with a key analyst on Wall Street or a key investor from Europe and ask them if they've read my blog, they almost universally say yes."
Chief executives of smaller companies have already seized on blogs, and big companies are increasingly joining in _ despite the potential for disastrous backfires.
In its unfiltered form, blogging lets CEOs bypass the public relations department, journalists and industry analysts and speak directly to the public.
Executive coach John Agno said blogs can also cure the dreaded "CEO disease" _ the isolation that envelops a leader when subordinates become reluctant to disclose bad news or worst-case scenarios that might trigger a shoot-the-messenger response.
"Blogs are personal. They humanize the Web and keep CEOs in touch with what's going on out there in America," said Agno, head of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based consulting firm Signature Inc. "People feel they can really have a conversation with someone who has a blog."
Thirty Fortune 500 companies are now publishing corporate blogs, nearly double the number in December 2005, according to the Fortune 500 Blogging Wiki, a collaborative tracking site. Technology companies like Amazon.com Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp. were early adopters, but senior executives at leading industrial companies like Boeing Co. and General Motors Corp. have also embrace the trend.
Yet few company blogs are from the chiefs.
Schwartz's entries are often risque. In his zeal to tout Sun, Schwartz has crossed paths with the company's legal department, whose attorneys have asked him to include "safe harbor" statements on blog entries that discuss future business strategies and products.
How much time executives spend blogging vary, but few seem to update more than once a week. Some executives _ including Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey _ do little beyond posting excerpts from public speeches and press releases.
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz's "Fast Lane" blog includes entries from other GM executives and links to his favorite German and French auto enthusiast sites. Lutz's site has generated 10,000 reader responses since January 2005 and, along with a smaller GM corporate blog, gets 4,000 to 6,000 unique daily visitors.
The blog allows the Swiss-born executive to write directly to hard-core motorheads around the world. More than 900 readers asked Lutz, who oversees product development, to revive the Chevrolet Camaro. GM said last month it would develop a new Camaro based on a concept car unveiled in January.
"I'm not going to tell you that Camaro is happening because the blogosphere demanded it; that would be disingenuous," Lutz wrote. "But I will tell you that the enthusiasm shown for Camaro in this forum is a shining and prominent example of the passion that exists for this automobile."
More than 3,000 of Sun's 30,000 employees maintain blogs on Sun's sites, a practice Schwartz says helps Sun attract workers with specialized interests. Schwartz says the most esoteric blog entries _ discussions on chip multithreading or Sun's Java programming language _ attract passionate responses.
"If you really care about Java in the medical device community, the fact that there's a Sun blog where someone focuses on that suggests there's someone at Sun you can relate to," Schwartz said. "There may be three people at Sun who care deeply about this stuff, and you can go hang out with them if you come work for us."
Karen Christensen, CEO of Great Barrington, Mass.-based Berkshire Publishing Group, usually updates her blog weekly but spent a half-hour a day blogging during a recent visit to China.
She says the blog gives colleagues a sense of her long hours and concern for details, making book reviewers _ her harshest critics _ consider her work in new light.
"I had a reviewer write to me and say, 'I never knew there were real people behind this,'" Christensen said.
The publishing industry is rife with bloggers, including Macmillan Publishers Ltd. CEO Richard Charkin, whose "Chark Blog" includes slice-of-life entries from the British executive. Consultants say blogging suits natural-born writers _ but it's tough for other executives.
"Ultimately, a good blog is good writing. Most CEOs are not good writers," said Debbie Weil, a Washington-based consultant and author of "The Corporate Blogging Book." "The packaging and controlling of the corporate message has always been done for them, so often they don't realize that writing well is hard work and takes time and thought and practice."
Blogs can also become a publicity land mine.
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 David Taylor, an executive consultant in Boulder, Colo.
"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.
CEO bloggers can also take heat when companies stumble.
Sun's annual revenue has declined in four of the past five years, and shares have plummeted to just over $5 from a September 2000 high of about $64.
"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.
Schwartz shrugs off criticism, insisting that blogging makes sense at Sun.
"Mainstream communication is horrible at serving niches," Schwartz said. "This is a good way to take the expertise around Sun, which can be pretty esoteric, and ensure it's available to the marketplace."
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