By Kevin Voigt
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(CNN) -- To blog, or not to blog?
That is the question many company executives are asking today. With the number of web logs, or blogs, now approaching 60 million and rising, business leaders are asking whether they should jump into the fray or stay away from the legion of "citizen journalists" clicking away in their bathrobes at home.
"The big elephant in the room for companies when it comes to blogging is fear," says Debbie Weil, author of "The Corporate Blogging Book" and consultant to CEO bloggers.
"They are afraid they'll lose control of their message. My advice is: Get over it. You have lost control -- so you might as well get in there."
Subject matter on blogs widely varies from online personal journals -- talking about friends, vacations and love lives -- to serious consumer and political advocates wielding real power, as demonstrated by the downfall of former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, whose instant messages to underage congressional pages was first published on a blog entitled "Stop Sex Predators."
Companies have encountered similar reputation challenges from disgruntled employees and customers: Dell Computer, IBM, Google, Apple have all waged wars against bloggers.
Companies who ignore blogs do so at their own risk, says Joichi Ito, a Japanese venture capitalist and a popular blogger. "Many companies adopt a sort of defensive posture with blogging ... but because bloggers link to each other, (bad news about a company) spreads quickly around the Internet," Ito said. "By the time the company figures out a problem, it's already all over the blogosphere."
A study by Ito's company, Technorati -- which monitors and ranks blogs worldwide -- and public relations firm Edelman found that the number of blogs doubles every five months. In survey questions to bloggers, at least half responded they wrote about a company, their products or employees at least once a week. Some bloggers have "viewership" in the millions, rivaling some television program audiences, Ito said.
As a public relations tool, a quick, honest blog response from the company CEO "is better than the polish of a press release," Ito said. "Speed and tone of response is critical ... even if it's just, `I'm sorry, we don't know what's going on, we're looking into it'."
It also can impact marketing and customer relations. Last year, a customer upset about repairs on his Land-Rover Discovery started a blog that garnered 700 views a day. The company made a deal with the blogger to have his site, haveyoursay.com, turned into a customer feedback forum. "It's one of the most powerful, cost-effect ways of connecting with your customers and get feedback," Weil said. "Some comments might be critical, but nonetheless more valuable."
Weil advises CEO bloggers to follow a few guidelines: Avoid libelous statements or revealing future plans and financial information. "It's all common sense, but it's important to have good blogging etiquette ... be nice and be respectful" even when comments are far from nice, she said. "Also remember that essentially you're getting into the publishing industry which will need constant updates if you want to be read, so you have to have the infrastructure in place to do that.
"The blogosphere is a real place, where a lot of people make connections with other bloggers, analysts and journalists," she said. "You want to play nice and you want to stay ahead of the competition."
Staying on message: Analysts say many companies see blogs as a way to lose control.