Disincentives to leadership blogging among public officials

While writing about Mark Stock’s AASA conference blog earlier today, I followed his link to U of MN professor Scott McLeod’s blog, Dangerously Irrelevant. (I blogged Scott briefly back in January as he was featured in a StarTribune article about school principals blogging.) I didn’t realize at the time that Scott had a blog.

I found Scott’s post titled Hot off the press! about that Strib article and it has a comment attached to it from Doug Johnson (personal homepage) who’s also Director of Media and Technology for the Mankato Schools.

Doug attached this comment to Scott’s post:

doug_johnson.JPGDo you think a part of the reluctance principals have to blog is the liability they might face if they were to mention their work?

I’ve been reading a bit about the responsibilities that professionals have not to name names, etc.

Scott’s reply included this:

McLeodS-2005.jpgThanks, Doug. It’s mostly a matter of finding time, I believe.

Until we help principals understand the affordances that a blog might lend over a paper newsletter, static web page, or maybe an e-mail listserv, they’ll continue to do what they’ve done, regardless of whether it’s doing much for them in terms of effective communication.

Most public officials who are in leadership positions (either elected, appointed, or employed) have the same time issues as any other leader. But I’ve noticed two trends over the past few years (just informal observation, no evidence to back this up) that leads me to think there are other reasons for the reluctance.

  • Very few politicians who use a blog as a campaign tool continue to blog once they’ve been elected.

  • A higher percentage of executive directors of non-profit organizations seem to be embracing leadership blogging than their counterparts in public institutions such as public schools, city, county and state government.

I’m thinking that there are more disincentives than incentives for public officials to blog.

  • Public officials believe it’s good to have an engaged citizenry but the more engaged citizens are, the more work it often is for leaders, especially those who aren’t as adept or comfortable with the give and take. So online tools like blogs can be seen as ways to encourage more engagement — whether or not one’s blog has comments enabled — and thus, blogs can easily be perceived as adding to one’s workload and headaches. (“I believe in democracy but not that much!!”) And, unlike members of a non-profit, citizens can’t easily take their business elsewhere and the revenue for the organization (taxes) still comes in the door.
  • Scott’s point about effective communication is a good one. A pubic official can point to their traditional communication tools as evidence that they’re trying their best, regardless of results. The traditional tools, most more expensive than a blog, are generally much easier to deploy and can be delegated to staff or consultants.

attack_of_the_blogs.jpgWill this change?

If enough citizens have blogs and podcasts and start using them to effectively challenge public officials at the local level, they could make a public leader’s life difficult to the point where using a blog of one’s own might be considered the best tool to deal with this.

The November 2005 cover story in Forbes, Attack of the Blogs, described how this is happening in business. And while I have many criticisms of that article, one of the sidebars to the piece (free login required) is Fighting Back: You can’t stop bloggers from launching an all-out attack on you or your business if that’s what they decide to do-but you can defend yourself. Here’s how. One of the suggestions:

Start your own blog. Hire a blogger to do a company blog or encourage your employees to write their own, adding your voice to the mix.

Part of that sounds like the leader wouldn’t actually be blogging so I’d edit that to read: “Start your own blog, adding your voice to the mix. Encourage your employees to start their own blogs.” And of course, HIRE A WEBLOG COACH. Heh.

So city councilors, county/school board members, and senior level managers/administrators/superintendents/principals take heed. Start a blog for leadership leverage now. It might help you in a blogosphere-related crisis. Better yet, it just might prevent a destructive, attack-oriented local blogosphere from developing.

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6 thoughts on “Disincentives to leadership blogging among public officials

  1. Unsurprisingly I agree with your conclusions. There’s a question about whether jumping in to blogging as a way of defending your position would fly with those taking an interest in that scene. But I’ve no doubt it can be an effective way of understanding and deflecting criticism.

    In my community we have a blogger, Kate who is starting to draw attention from the local press and the council. How the council responds will tell a story about the sort of institution it is and what motivates its leaders. Do they ignore it for as long as possible, do they try to make the issues go away by providing her with an individual solution, do they engage in the debate trying to explain the wider position while acknowledging the difficulties for people like Kate?

    I know which way I’d like to see things happen.

  2. My experience with blogging as a school superintendent has been largely a positive one. The “disincentive” aspect of blogging that leaders seem to fear so much – is largely overblown. Why? Your communities are populated with many good people with common sense and busy lives. Because they are mostly silent (running kids to soccer practice and going to church…) people overlook them.
    When the negative flamers, whiners and complainers start in blasting you or your organization on the blog – it tends to bring those quiet folks out of the woodwork. They were there – they were just being shy.

    My experience is that the support for the leader who blogs grows and grows right through the negativitiy. Think of it like excercise. You may get a little sore at first – but the healing process makes you more fit then you were before.

  3. That’s an aspect that I hadn’t considered, Mark. If you don’t mind, I’ll use that in my presentations — full attribution, of course!

    I should note, though, that I still recommend having comments turned off for most leaders when they start blogging. Why? Most need to experience the advantages of blogging as a leadership tool first, and once confident, using it as a tool for interaction comes second.

    I draw a parallel to giving a speech… one can give a very effective speech and not take questions afterwards. But in most cases, it’s better if you do as the audience appreciates it. But if you’re not confident of your speaking skills, you’re probably not going to be confident of your skills at handling the rough and tumble Q&A afterwards. And therefore, most leaders will likely want to avoid the whole experience.

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