By Del Jones, USA TODAY
When Jonathan Schwartz was promoted to CEO, Sun Microsystems (SUNW) became the largest company with a CEO who blogs.
It made Schwartz and Sun a test case, a beta version if you will, of what's to come at other companies — or what may not come. Companies talk a lot about becoming more open and transparent, but they will be watching Schwartz's experiment to see how much transparency is feasible in business, where trade secrets are protected and warts hidden.
Blogging by its nature is for those with thick skin. Readers weigh in with tactless comments, so CEOs who blog do not enjoy insulation from critics. Schwartz's blog averages 400,000 hits a month, and each of his posts average dozens of comments from customers, shareholders and others.
Sun says comments to Jonathan's Blog (blogs.sun.com/jonathan) are edited only for profanity and spam and that the public can otherwise express whatever venom it wishes. While most comments range from favourable to gushing, some would test the most amicable company to press the delete key. Criticism may foster improvement, but it's not a comfortable route.
For example, after being named CEO, Schwartz wrote a love-fest to his predecessor and Sun founder, Scott McNealy, saying, "No single individual has spawned so many start-ups, fuelled so much venture investment, or raised so much capital. And no single individual, outside my family, has been a greater influence on my life." Back came this comment: "Oh, and thank you Scott for the $1-2 million pay raise." Another called Sun's products "either way overpriced, or free." Another promised "soon to be a former customer."
In an interview, Schwartz says the payback for allowing free expression is that customers value authenticity and integrity and that one day it will prove to be a competitive advantage. He announced in his June 2 post that customers now may write unedited product reviews, blemishes and all, directly to Sun's website.
Leaving a note for the CEO
Is the sunshine policy working? That's difficult to measure, but in an interview, blog reader Dustin Sacks, president of Sillysoft Games in Vancouver, said, "Sun seems more open if I can leave a note for the CEO."
Sun's revenue exceeded $11 billion last year, yet it still lost $107 million. A month after taking over as CEO, Schwartz announced up to 5,000 job cuts. Analysts were critical that he didn't cut more. Until Sun's strategy proves profitable, healthier companies will likely stand back to see if all that sunshine gives the company something other than skin cancer.
Schwartz, 40, first came to the company in his 20s when his tech start-up was acquired by Sun. His first assignment at Sun was under chief technology officer Eric Schmidt, now CEO of Google, who led the development of Java, Sun's programming technology.
He confesses to being "a little unconventional," demonstrated, he says, by his ponytail.
Schwartz started writing a blog in June 2004. He is a fluid writer, which he credits to his "British mummy" for instilling a love of reading and writing as a child. His prose, and the unfiltered comments, make his blog entertaining. One of his most loyal readers is Sun's general counsel, Mike Dillon, who often places late-night phone calls to Schwartz recommending that he add the safe-harbour provision, a boilerplate statement aimed at protecting companies from shareholder lawsuits by investors given unfulfilled promises.
So far, there is one other Fortune 500 company with a blogging CEO — John Mackey of Whole Foods — but his last post was in May, and the topics he addresses do not expose the company to criticism. Mackey also allows reader comments to his blog (www.whole foods.com/blogs/jm) but warns that comments will be filtered if they don't address the primary topic of his entries. Other corporate blogs often prohibit comments altogether, which to blogging purists means they are writing online press releases.
Everyone can do it
Sun encourages all of its employees to write their own blogs. More than 2,000 do, 600 posting at least weekly. Not one has been fired for saying anything wayward, Sun says, although 7% of large companies with far fewer employee bloggers say they have had to fire people for inappropriate blogging, according to a survey of 300 large companies released this month by Proofpoint and Forrester Research.
Schwartz says a Sun employee wouldn't be fired over a blog short of breaking the law. "Our blogging policy is 'Be authentic. Period,' " he says.
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