In today’s rapidly changing digital world brands and organizations have come to realize that enabling your workforce to communicate your company’s message is an organizational imperative. But, unlike previous attempts at encouraging employees to proactively engage in conversations and discussions promoting the brand or product or company, there is one huge difference. The days of soliciting scripted, employee ambassadors are long gone. While brand ambassadors are appealing to some companies because they appear more regulated, they simply aren’t authentic and therefore aren’t effective. Employees who are properly activated with the right tools can drive awareness, change perceptions, educate stakeholders, assist customer service, lower risk and provide insight into various industries.
Best Buy (which is a client) is a pioneer in this regard, having tapped into those advantages early on. When Steve Bendt (now with Expedia) and Gary Koelling (now with Servli) started the employee-only social network, Blue Shirt Nation (BSN), in 2006, they probably didn’t expect to have 20,000 of Best Buy’s employees on board with the effort. Best Buy figured it out early. So how can how your brand make similar changes in employee communications?The company continues to empower employees to share expertise online—through forums like Best Buy Unboxed and It’s Geek Squad blogs—and join the conversation online with company- run handles such as @Twelpforce. So how can how your brand make similar changes in employee communications? For starters, there needs to be policies that allow people to actively engage in outside conversations on behalf of the organization.
More important, there needs to be a very subtle, sophisticated effort at treating people with respect, dignity and like they are capable of handling information in a manner that strengthens the organization’s intellect.
Here are some tips on enabling your employees to be advocates:
▶ Harvest confidence. Ask any winemaker worth his salt. You can’t just slap a pretty label on a bottle and declare the contents a masterpiece. There is a disciplined, pragmatic process allowing the content to mature, evolve and ferment to achieve maximum quality and taste.
It’s the same with developing advocates in your organization. It’s a complex process that’s unique to each company. People don’t want to be brand ambassadors. They want to be proud employees.
An emphasis has to be placed on employee development, training, tools and strategy. Once you build pride and confidence in the ranks of your company internally, people will be motivated to speak up, whether it’s in the digital space or through traditional channels.
▶ Train constantly. Companies need to provide professional training and development programs that are engaging and informative. Take the digital space. Beyond your standard digital policy and protocol training, provide your employees with elective courses catered to individual interests. Invest in developing their skills online. A more knowledgeable workforce will naturally grow your business capabilities and organically produce employees who are skilled at communicating online.
▶ Make advocacy easy. The fastest way to lose participation is by making something overly difficult. Training is a piece of this, but there are so many other ways to make advocacy easy for employees.
One way to make sharing information effortless is to create a content repository. A single internal platform that houses shareable content can eliminate the time-consuming task of searching for employees.
For those who don’t even know where to look, it’s also a great place to start. Have an exciting piece of company news that you want employees to share on their personal channels? Provide them with formatted leads for social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
▶ Ongoing conversations drive engagement. When it comes to digital policies and governance, the more concise the better. Policies and guidelines have to be comprehensive, and shouldn’t cause any fear. If employees are afraid to participate, they won’t. If corporate blog posts or personal tweets from employees are gridlocked because of a confusing or lengthy legal review process, content can quickly become stale and even irrelevant.
The goal is ongoing conversation between and among employees and stakeholders both online and offline. Let early adopters run.
When it comes to advocacy online, a large portion of employees will most likely be hesitant to dive right in. It’s important to let early adopters in your organization move quickly. These are often digital natives and enthusiasts. They know the channels, the language, and are tapped into your network. You can then work to leverage the skills across the organization.
▶ Don’t force it. Employees aren’t going to lie to their friends, family and business connections for their employer. You shouldn’t expect them to. Enabling employees to communicate the company message won’t work if they don’t buy it.
Again, it’s not a quick fix and it starts with understanding your company’s culture. If the story your executives are telling doesn’t match the front line, there’s a problem.
Once you give employees the encouragement and tools to grow professionally and ensure that the company message is unified and understood across the board, advocacy will come naturally. Know what you’re chasing. What exactly are you trying to achieve? Declaring that you’re going to empower employees isn’t enough. It’s important to specify precisely what outcomes you’re after or your efforts won’t be tangible enough.
It might be that you want to activate subject matter experts within a particular function online. Maybe you’re looking to inform an entire workforce of new policies and training programs. It could be that you want to provide in-depth tips on an online channel so that employees are armed with the tools to maximize their digital presence. Whatever it is, pull it down to measurable terms.
Our increasingly digital world is positioning employees in a way that allows them to voice realities. This means that employees can humanize a brand negatively by airing dirty laundry or enhance reputation by sharing thought leadership and growing influence. Which will it be?
Gary Grates is a principal at W2O Group. He is also Board member of the Institute of Public Relations Research (IPR). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the September 15, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.