Why limiting employees’ online presence is a big mistake in journalism and elsewhere

Recently Forrester Research decided on an unfortunate, shortsighted policy. Forrester analysts can no longer can their own personally branded research blogs. They’re allowed to run their own blogs about their personal life or topics unrelated to their work at Forrester. But all their blogging on work-related topics must be done in blogs that are owned by Forrester.

Forrester’s rationale for this, according to VP Josh Bernoff, is that “Forrester is an intellectual property company, and the opinions of our analysts are our product.”

Which IMHO is the equivalent of saying “If you work for us, we reserve the right to own your brain and your social/professional network and reputation.”

Here’s why that’s a bad idea all the way around — not just for research, consulting, and IP companies, but for news organizations and journalists, too…

Recently, PR maven Shel Holz rightly called bullshit on Forrester’s IP argument:

The notion seems to suggest that analysts who write about their work on their own blogs are somehow sapping Forrester of its IP. Maybe I’m just dense, but I don’t see how, particularly if those blogs link back to Forrester, bringing the company to the attention of new prospects.

Other companies with bloggers don’t compare because, Bernoff argues, their products aren’t about IP. I would argue that Microsoft and IBM are entirely about IP. Both companies encourage their employees to blog wherever they like. The companies link to those blogs on a page that links to all of the company’s bloggers. (Here are links to Microsoft’s and IBM’s employee blog directories.)

…I’m not inside the heads of Forrester’s leaders, so I can’t say how much of a factor the fear of losing analysts who build strong personal brands played in the decision. I’d be disappointed if it was a major consideration, since it seems petty and mean-spirited.

…If a cost-benefit analysis had been done, I can’t believe it would have led Forrester to adopt this policy. So why, then? It’s either a provincial and wrong-minded understanding of IP or a knee-jerk reaction to the Altimeter Group situation. Either way, it’s a mistake.

Here’s the comment I left on Shel’s post:

This reminds me of struggles that many journalists currently face with the news organizations that employ them (albeit in fast-shrinking numbers). Many news orgs prohibit or limiting not only employees having their own blogs, but also whether and how they use social media on their own time and accounts.

In the journalism world they claim this is to “preserve objectivity” (as if objectivity ever existed, or as if transparency doesn’t promote credibility more effectively). But it’s pretty obvious when you talk to news managers that they often view their own employees as competition when it comes to online media. And they prefer to keep their employees in a one-down position when it comes to personal branding.

Which is not only sad and shortsighted, but dreadfully counterproductive. Especially since companies that adopt this unfortunate mindset certainly aren’t offering financial compensation (say, a couple of years’ salary, or a guarantee of employment for the next 3 years) in exchange for employees giving up crucial avenues for making their own professional opportunities.

It’s bad business all the way around — but it’s especially unfair to the employees.

…Back in 2008 I explained why building a personal online brand and presence that’s under your control (not your employer’s) is the key to having almost any kind of professional career these days — but especially careers that involve media or communications in any significant way. See: Media Career Insurance: Your Blog

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