Bloggers Beware: New Rules for CBC Employees

My name is Chris MacDonald, and I work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. OK, that second part isn’t true, but if it were, I might not be allowed to write this blog, or at least I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you who I work for, according to a new “guideline” issued by the CBC’s management. (CBC managers have asserted that it’s a guideline, not a policy. As far as most of the concerns about the document are concerned, it’s a spurious distinction.) [See update below.]

The document is not publicly available — in fact, it hasn’t been officially distributed within the CBC yet — but it got leaked internally, and lots of CBC employees have seen it. It caught CBC-based-bloggers off-guard; despite the fact that several of them had proactively written their own set of voluntary guidelines a few years ago, they weren’t included or consulted in the process of devising the new official guideline.

According to the InsideCBC blog (an official, sanctioned, insider’s blog), the new policy applies to a CBC employee’s personal blog “if the content clearly associates them with CBC/Radio-Canada.”

Among the requirements of the guideline/policy:

  • Bloggers are “expected to behave in a way that is consistent with our journalistic philosophy, editorial values and corporate policies.”
  • “[T]he blog cannot advocate for a group or a cause, or express partisan political opinion. It should also avoid controversial subjects or contain material that could bring CBC/Radio-Canada into disrepute.”
  • To start and maintain a blog of this kind, you need your supervisor’s approval.

Note, also, that the guideline/policy applies to all employees, not just to journalists (whose blogs might reasonably be mistaken for news) or to marquee on-air personalities.

The guideline has caused a stir among CBC-employee-bloggers and beyond.

A lot of objections have already been raised in the Comments section of the I see a couple of the InsideCBC blog. And while some elements of the document seem unproblematic and even constructive, I see a couple of types of problems with it. One has to do with content. The other has to do with process.

There are clearly a number of elements of the guideline/policy that are either unclear or unenforceable or both. For example, the stipulation that it applies to blogs “if the content clearly associates them with CBC/Radio-Canada.” Several commenters have pointed out that there are lots of ways, intentional and unintentional, that a blog could associate itself with the CBC. The blogger might self-identify as a CBC employee, or merely imply or even just let slip that she or he is an employee. In terms of specific requirements, the one that has most angered those involved is the stipulation that employees must seek their supervisors’ permission to write a personal blog. This seems on the face of it a pretty serious restriction on freedom of speech. Maybe (maybe) CBC has the right to make that stipulation as a matter of employment contract, but having a right to do so doesn’t make it appropriate, or wise, to excercise that right.

It’s pretty bad that bloggers at the CBC were caught off-guard by this guideline/policy, for at least 3 reasons
1) For policies and codes of all kinds, buy-in is crucial. Given how difficult this policy will be to enforce (i.e., very) it’s utterly essential that the people to be governed by it accept it as legitimate and wise. Oops.
2) The CBC employees with blogs are a pretty smart bunch, who have thought a fair bit about what their obligations are. And, just through experience, they undrestand blogging better than anyone in CBC’s editorial offices is going to. What a shame not to draw on that knowledge and experience. Serious error.
3) By drafting a document that doesn’t reflect, acknowledge, or draw upon the bloggers’ own manifesto, CBC management is neglecting the fact that some of their very bright employees have expected considerable effort on the very issue they’re now seeking to regulate. At very least that seems disrespectful.

Now that the errors have been made, the serious ethics & leadership challenge lies in whether & how CBC managers can recover. “Recovery” here means ending up with a policy that is clear and enforceable, and retaining some semblance of moral authority in the eyes of their employees.

Disclosure of potential bias: I’ve got a friend among the CBC-employee-bloggers affected by this new guideline/policy.
According to this update from CBC, the document referred to above was “only a proposed early draft.” (Note that “proposed” doesn’t make sense there: either it was a draft, or it wasn’t.) Also according to the update, “There are currently no specific corporate policies in effect relating directly to blogging.” (This update is brought to you by the nice Media Relations and Issues Management people at CBC, who asked me to correct the above posting.)

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