Social sniff test: engaging employees as advocates or treating them as commercial commodities?

Latest post on shared blog, PR Conversations, is by Judy Gombita, my co-author:

Some weighty conversations with subject experts:

Debating employee engagement in a healthy corporate culture versus an amplified trend to “suggest” a program of socializing, whereby “employee brands” or “advocates” post marketing messages on their personal accounts (similar to native advertising).

The communicative, socialized organization

In December 2012, in my Access Byte column, I detailed what constituted a “communicative organization,” (i.e., ones with a robust yet fluid structure), both externally and internally. I quotedDave Gray, author of the The Connected Company:

“Connected companies are networks that live within other networks. To be effective in a networked world requires different ways of thinking and acting. It’s less about predictability and control, and more about awareness, influence, and compatibility.”

Prior to receiving my review copy of Gray’s book, I’d already written about what I see as a superior disruptionto “breaking down marketing and communication department silos” (a phrase often seized upon by consultants–I see I’m not the only person who dislikes the tossed-out salvo). Not to mention the oft-repeated stereotype about how many corporate communications departments feel a need to “control” external messaging. This is an assertion that fails to appreciate that it is leadership that makes such decisions, not power-mad public relations autocrats.

In a nutshell, this superior disruption involves a greater harmonization and connectivity between internal and external communications. (An evolving appreciation I detailed in the earlier part of an extended interview with Paper.li’s Kelly Hungerford.)

I continue to believe informed and engaged staff who feel valued and confident, and who appreciate their employer’s multivariate licence to operate, can play a significant role in the social manifestation of a company, whether or not their position and skill set is public facing or related to communication. I provided suggestion on how this could be done in Employee Byte: Insourcing Your Social PR (April 2012) and on PR Conversations I suggested “guidelines” for employee socializing externally, ones that would be valued as a resource.

I say this to establish that it’s not the idea of socializing more staff under the corporate umbrella network and garnering their input for organizational social media accounts that is under discussion; rather, it’s the lack of mindfulness of any “advocacy” or “employee brand” program that is single-minded in its intent to suggest all staff help to sell stuff, in particular through their personal social media accounts.

This rather frightening idea is trending on the interwebs.

A blurring of the personal and professional for commercial purposes

Recently Australian Craig Pearce weighed in, with a pro-and-con take, asking Does business exploit employees’ social media real estate? Although his final argument revolved around which personal accounts on specific social media platforms might be considered in a deliberate employee advocacy program, I believe the more egregious problem is the assumption it is acceptable for management to “suggest” a blurring of the personal and professional for commercial purposes.

For example, Pearce suggested LinkedIn as the most acceptable platform. Yet I know colleagues who are conflicted upon receiving LinkedIn invitations from leadership (particularly their direct-report bosses). My friends see their LinkedIn investment primarily as a personal one for the future, as well as the present, whichmay not revolve around their current employment situation. Although smart people certainly do not set out to detract from their current or past employers, online or off, it shouldn’t be assumed they will be employee advocates on personal accounts. Particularly if the current “culture and values” of the organization and its leaders prove lacking and don’t engage staff.

Knowing and understanding the corporate mission versus a typical mistake made about employees

The value of keeping employees informed and connected to the corporate mission is a view that appears to be shared by Augie Ray, director, global voice of customer strategy, for American Express (previously in social media roles at companies such as USAA and Forrester). In the past I noted Ray’s understanding about what informs and engages employees in social, including this 2013 post on corporate mission statements,

“Finally…a mission that employees do not know cannot help to guide their behaviors and decisions. Too many companies tell new employees about their mission but then fail to reinforce it constantly…. There is a simple test for whether your company is doing enough to promote its mission to employees: Ask them. At USAA, you can stop random employees in the hall and ask the company mission, and they can recite it word for word….”

Later Ray indicates, “A strong mission that forces tough decisions has helped to make USAA the most-trusted company in the US.”

When asked specifically about this concept of recruiting non-marketing, communication or (per his present focus) customer-service staff for employee advocacy, particularly on their own social media accounts, Augie Ray (who by choice is professionally and personally socialized) was pragmatic,

“I think a lot of [social media] folks tend to miss how little employees want to advocate or advertise on behalf of their employer. It’s a typical mistake.

Even at brands with high consumer advocacy, employees have the same gripes and frustrations as employees elsewhere—they still have bosses and tight deadlines and wished they earned more. At the end of the day, it’s still a job!”

 

Employee engagement based on an understanding and fidelity to the corporate character and belief systems

There are numerous ways for companies to be “connected” a la Dave Gray, beyond shallow social sharing outputs and outtakes (with little social-proof measurement of actual outcomes) and for staff to appreciate why their employer-company has a licence to operate beyond its products or services for sale.

Besides the previously mentioned Employee Byte, I believe one of my strongest social PR columns wasFidelity Byte: Distilling Corporate Character in PR 2.0 Minutes. Not only did I focus on corporate values,leadership and culture (as embedded in the Global Alliance’s “call to action” Melbourne Mandate), the featured IBM on Brand video introduced many to the thoughts of IBM’s Jon Iwata. Some of my favourite passages from this video include:

“…. What I’ve concluded is that we don’t try to manage the IBM brand—we try to manage our character as a business.

And we’ve never defined IBM by what we are selling. We’ve learned that at some point in the future if you make that mistake you will have to go through a lot of expense and trouble to take out of people’s hearts and minds that definition of IBM….

So if we are not going to define IBM by what we make, what defines us? And it comes back to this notion of our corporate character, and that’s our beliefs systems and our purpose and our mission and what makes us, us. We tend to that the brand takes care of itself….”

Advocate: a person who speaks or writes in support of some cause, argument or proposal

It is possible an organic social update from an ardent and engaged employee from IBM (or elsewhere), advocating about the company’s corporate character or beliefs systems or purpose or mission will catch my attention.

Certainly more than it would from a “social media marketing tool” who half-heartedly shares “messages” or content crafted by sales or marketing, perhaps on the advice of an external consultant. Presumably the suggestion is made to staff in the (dubious) anticipation that their friends and family eagerly await such infomercials to consume and act upon.

But these arguments reflect my experience and thinking. It’s time to test my beliefs against two in-house subject experts working for socially connected companies, one very large the other quite small.

A yammer with Microsoft’s Tom Murphy about employee engagement and external advocacy

Although Tom Murphy is not involved directly in Microsoft Corporation’s internal communications programs (his current role at the Redmond HQ is director of commercial communications for Microsoft Office, which includes Office 365 and Yammer; prior to this he was director of PR for corporate citizenship), he is a employee whom I trust to provide an accurate bird’s eye view about what it’s like to be on Microsoft’s payroll. In particular, he’s great at relating how its corporate character and values—not to mention information sharing—fan out from Microsoft’s leadership and are embraced by staff.

I asked Murphy some questions about employee engagement related to social information sharing. I also had in mind finding out more about Yammer, the enterprise social networking platform Microsoft acquired a few years ago for US$1.2 billion that some consider the industry standard for internal communications. In particular, I was interested in whether Microsoft employees “yammer the talk.” And, by extension, whether there’s an expectation internal Microsoft “socializing” will result in an outward manifestation, particularly with a marketing focus.

Right off the start Murphy indicated that Microsoft publishes “Clear social media guidelines for all employees. These are socialized with people when they join the company and then every year through a set of mandatory online training courses addressing issues like business ethics.”

He affirmed there’s no pressure on employees (public facing or not public facing) to promote the company via social media channels. “In fact this is never even asked through management or team channels. Like any community of 100,000 people, you’ll have people who promote the company and those that never promote the company.”

It wasn’t surprising to hear the company’s social media guidelines make it clear that any employee discussing a Microsoft-related topic online should make evident they are on staff.

From Murphy’s point of view, the only encouragement for cross-promotion takes place in a casual manner through email or Yammer. “For example there are mailing lists internally (though increasingly these groups interact on Yammer) for bloggers, tweeters, etc., where people can discuss elements of interest to people using those tools. On an ad hoc basis PR teams will send these groups a heads up that a particular announcement or piece of news is taking place and providing links, etc.”

He reiterated how there’s zero pressure on recipients and definitely no tracking about who promotes things or not—it comes down to individual choice and relevance. Murphy said he can verify this because of his own participation in groups with employees from various departments. “As a PR person you hope employees feel passionate about what they’re doing and the company they work for, but to be authentic people need to make a personal decision if it’s something they want to share.”

When asked his opinion about this trending social “counsel” to institute a “employee advocacy” program, his response was quite emphatic, “There’s little value in railroading people into ‘promoting’ products or services. Furthermore, everyone at Microsoft is well educated and employees tend to hold strong opinions.”

He ended by paying tribute to Microsoft’s internal communications team, whose job is to, “Ensure our people know about what’s going on at the company, highlighting employee benefits, employee participation in services (such as get healthy programs, etc), customer wins, new technology breakthroughs, and so on. They do a great job through Yammer, email and our corporate intranet. If employees want to share some of this information they can, but there’s no forcing motion!”

I reminded Murphy about an exchange a couple of years ago when Microsoft was the subject of a dubiously researched Vanity Fair article (he was able to provide me with greater context, including the company’s healthy financial growth in terms of revenue and operating income between 2002 and 2011). He’d ended that message with the statement: “I’ve worked in a lot of places. Nowhere is perfect—nowhere—but this is a pretty great company to work for.”

To me this type of insider information and honesty is more revealing and Microsoft affirming than would be some “bit part” pressurized and canned marketing message shared on an employee’s personal social media accounts. So I thank Tom Murphy, for proving the best employee advocates are ones that come from a (non-mandated or “suggested”) place of engagement, critical thinking and truth.

The social culture and principles of Paper.li as explained by Kelly Hungerford

You might think that every employee who work for a small European tech company with a tremendous global reach (see this CommPRObiz article for more information about Paper.li) might feel even more pressure to be always “online and promotional” as advocates.

My first question to Kelly Hungerford, community, communication and content manager for Paper.li, was whether the company had a formal social media policy or set of guidelines. She responded, “There are no formal documents, but we do have a loose, informal set of social media guidelines that began as a simple list of observations (and notes) on situations I faced during my first year at Paper.li. I prefer to think of them as a practical guide to dealing with complicated situations rather than formal guidelines.”

When asked about staff composition, Hungerford indicated they’re a tight-knit team of 10, situated between both Europe and the USA, a “mixed bunch representing eight nationalities, split evenly in our jobs between technology and business.” Not only is its product inherently social (see our own Daily @PRConversations Champions as an example), the team uses digital properties to maintain a “pulse” on what’s happening within its global community of paper.li users.

Hungerford explained, “Our platform engineers monitor Twitter regularly, which is a big plus, because a good portion of user-reported issues come through Twitter. Very often this results in a quicker resolution of problems or concerns for users. At a minimum, we’re all on the same page when we gather around a physical or virtual table to speak about issues.”

Besides the company blog and formal accounts on Twitter, Facebook, GooglePlus and Pinterest—apparently plans are in the works for a LinkedIn presence, too—each team member has registered personal social media accounts; the number and type of platforms vary per individual preference.

When asked about the “employee advocacy” counsel under discussion, Hungerford was quick to assert, “There is no pressure on our team to ‘be social’ as a part of their job descriptions. In some measure this is cultural. In equal part, though, it’s because it is not a strategy we as a team feel comfortable about pursuing. Our personal accounts are personal. If someone is stoked about a new feature or there’s something else Paper.li is doing that a staff member thinks is great, it’s quite likely the person will share the information without being asked. Alternatively, if an employee sees a community member waxing enthusiastically, thatupdate might be reshared or commented upon.”

This is the (un)official employee socializing policy and position of the Switzerland-based Paper.li, but I was curious about how the “marketing” side of American ex-pat Kelly Hungerford felt about the idea of amplified employee advocacy.

She responded, “I personally don’t buy into the notion of counting on employees to bear the weight and responsibility of pushing sales, PR or communication. Over the years I’ve definitely learned and embraced the European cultural trait of separating one’s personal and professional life. Life outside of work is highly valued and encouraged and—depending on the size or type of organization—enforced. So the idea of being ‘encouraged’ to promote your employer company particularly during personal time, or through individual accounts, really doesn’t resonate.”

I can attest that Kelly Hungerford is well-suited to her community and communication role, an authentic advocate for Paper.li above and beyond her formal role, as evidenced in her concluding thoughts, “I believe that if you appreciate and enjoy working for your company you will naturally ooze enthusiasm and you’ll share these thoughts.”

Regarding the believability factor of socializing more employees to share marketing messages, she was less enthusiastic. “If I see an employee regularly posting accolades about his or her company’s product or service, will it push me to purchase? Not necessarily. To me it feels similar to walking into a store where the salespeople work on commission. You feel the forced aspect and it can be awkward for both.”

The deeper, long-term process of employee engagement through internal communications

None of the above subject experts list employee communications as their area of specialty, so I approached the UK’s Kevin Ruck, who is an internal communications (and PR) trainer, coach and consultant. He’s the co-founder of The PR Academy, which is an approved study centre for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Qualifications, including both the CIPR Internal Communications Certificate and CIPR Internal Communications Diploma. Ruck is also a course tutor for the internal communications courses and, as a member volunteer, a past chair (and current member) of CIPR Inside, the association’s rather creatively named Internal Communications group for members.

Ruck’s initial reaction when I asked him to opine was pretty dismissive,

“I am wary of using terms such as ‘advocacy’ and ‘champion’ for describing how employees should act. Although it is not always intended, there is a sense of employees being required to be ‘super engaged,’ sometimes through a special programme that implies they just need to be motivated or incentivised more. This is counter to my research that suggests that employees distrust ‘engagement programmes’.”

Definitely formal internal communications best practices are worth pursuing, particularly relating to a sense of self-worth and investment of staff in their employer. The way Kevin Ruck describes it,

“Engagement is a deeper, long-term process that requires the organisation keep employees informed and to give them a say about what goes on that is treated seriously. This may sound less sexy than an ‘advocacy’ activation or ‘brand champion’ programme. However, in the long term it pays dividends. As one managing director that I used to work for said, ‘We don’t want employees to go around behaving like they’re game show hosts on speed’.”

In conclusion

My final position is that the corporate logic espoused by external sages about the willingness of staff to customize updates on their own social media accounts, i.e., ambient “advocacy” for products or services, is both a false construct and limited and uninformed in terms of true engagement..

It bears little resemblance to internal communications and employee “brand fidelity” best practices, as detailed by various subject experts in this post.

I’ll end with a bit of levity in this seriously argued post, by pointing you to Stephen Abbott’s tweeted thoughtswhen asked for an analogy about asking employees to use personal social media accounts for marketing purposes. He characterized it as being akin to: “A bumper sticker on your car. Now think of the taxable benefit obligations for crossing those lines.”

Can we agree this doesn’t pass the social sniff test?

CIPR Fellow | Educator | Consultant | PR practitioner | Director of MIPAA Ltd | Twitter: @Greenbanana | Studying PhD in Career Strategies in Public Relations | Passionate about professional development

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