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

The Paper.li team in Gruyère, Switzerland, during one of the company's thrice-yearly all-staff, face-to-face gatherings

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 quoted Dave 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 disruption to “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 employees who want to socialize 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, which may 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 was Fidelity 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 an 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 an “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” canned and pressurized 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 works 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, that update 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 in staff by 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 thoughts when 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?

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53 Responses to “Social sniff test: engaging employees as advocates or treating them as commercial commodities?”
  1. Judy – thank you for this interesting post which presents a number of relevant points about employees and social media. I believe that we are seeing a shift in the dynamics of employment that is not necessarily understood or reflected by managers, nor many involved in communications.

    The idea of ‘control’ would be one issue – where organisations feel a greater need to control what is increasingly uncontrollable. This includes people and the terms human resources and human capital, demonstrate an attitude that is almost autistic in its inability to empathise with others. Of course, organisations are perfectly free to stipulate in legal contracts their expectations of employees and this seems to underpin the idea that you can tell (or expect) personal SM to promote the organisation. Indeed, it goes further with the recent trend of BYOD (bring your own device) where employees are expected to utilise their own technology to do their jobs, but within constraints imposed by the organisation.

    At the same time, we have increasing reduction in any sense of commitment to employees – both in formal contracts and in psychological contracts. This is likely to reduce goodwill and hence a desire to talk openly and positively about work experiences and what the employer is doing in a promotional sense. Career paths are increasingly personal and changing – including for communicators – which further undermines any sense of loyalty. If I’m using my own devices, ironically it will be even easier to port my social and cultural capital to the next employer.

    What this all means is that those organisations who are able to view employees as people and invest as partners engaged in a communal relationship – are likely to see organic use of SM channels which in turn have greater credibility and real word of mouth endorsement. Sadly, that is likely to be the minority.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Thanks, Heather for packing a lot of additional thoughts and shadings onto my post in a relatively short comment!

      To your first point, I agree we are seeing a shift in the dynamics not only of employment, but also in how companies are being structured. In The Connected Company, Dave Gray argues that the move must be from traditional, top-down hierarchies to this networks-within-networks concept. New—and often smaller—companies (like Zappos or Paper.li) have an advantage in that they can opt to focus on being mindfully agile, adaptive and connected. However, if they don’t do it correctly, or they fail to maintain this structure as they grow in size and complexity, they won’t last long as a business (or employer in retraining talent).

      And for the older, established companies, the questions is can they turn that big, lumbering ship around, go back to the dock and rebuild everything? Companies like IBM and Microsoft have done that and continue to not only survive but thrive. I was somewhat deliberate in choosing Tom Murphy as a subject expert because I think many do not appreciate that Yammer is a Microsoft property. I still see those who conclude—with little research—that Microsoft has lost touch with the new reality, simply because much of what it produces remain legacy business technologies and products. But it also has developed or acquired many of the most-popular newer technologies, including Yammer. And you can see that its own staff really does “yammer the talk.”

      Regarding what you said about stipulating sharing in legal employee contracts, that might be the next manifestation of “employee advocacy,” but I’ve yet to find or read about a company doing this in an all-encompassing fashion. Certainly I’ve seen posted job descriptions for public-facing roles for sales, marketing, customer service or communication, indicating that part of the desired skill set is being adept on social media platforms. But I suspect this is not true for most advertised positions for areas like finance, analytics, government relations, payroll administration, etc.

      The BYOD question is interesting, because it seems to me that compromise has been made for two distinct reasons. One is financial: it’s cheaper for a company to either partially subsidize a program or to have no resource output at all if employees want to use their own devices. The second is because employees either lobbied for such a sanctioned “benefit” or were using their own devices surreptitiously, anyhow, so it was easier to give in and make the informal practice the official policy. This was particularly true for companies that had firewalls around the corporate computer network, which didn’t’ allow personal use of company devices, particularly for social media accounts, but sometimes even for email.

      I am in absolute agreement regarding your thought “it will be even easier to port my social and cultural capital to the next employer.”

      One of the posts not used in the article (although it was shared through the PR Conversations Twitter account), which definitely influenced my thinking, was Anshu Sharma’s relatively short post, The Social Kerfuffle: What is an Employee? Sharma coined a new (to me) initialism, BYOS, which stands for “bring your own social network.” He asks Who owns what? Who is responsible when an error is made by the employee? What is an error? What is an employee?

      He also claims the typical employee today will have seven or more jobs in their working life….and indicates the typical employer doesn’t even pretend to do what’s best for employees anymore. If you haven’t yet, a suggestion to read his take on this brave new world where we have to redefine employer-employee “social” relationships of BYOS!

      Regarding IBM, this is another article I reflected upon, which I found on Forbes. It was interesting to hear the former IBM’er saying that one of the most important things done was joining up the marketing and communications department (which Jon Iwata leads). Why? Because I think IBM is a (really rare) instance where “marketing” is under the big corporate communications umbrella, in terms of mission, goals and intent….rather than the reverse.

  2. toni muzi falconi says:

    ​I concur with Heather and congratulate you for this stimulating post.

    Involving employees as a ‘contractual stakeholder’ group implies that the organization make available to them, as well as to other stakeholder groups, social, economic, environmental and governance information in a continued, mu​lti-stakeholder and multi-channel format and facilitating, when not incentivating, their access and feedback.

    However, as often said in the many ​PRC posts on this issue, engaging them is one more step forward and implies, on the basis of specific programs and actions, a careful selection of those the organization wishes to give a ‘ring’ to, which is a completely different relationship building mode implying that the organization is intent to stimulate their active advocacy.

    In the case of ‘contractual stakeholders’ it is much better if the actual contract employees sign with employers include this advocacy task explicitly in order not to be ‘called out’ by single ​employees or their representatives. Something similar would also involve other stakeholder groups such as suppliers and consultants and (why not) also investors.

    I frankly do not see why organizations cannot do this…but so far they don’t seem to be doing it….

    As both and Heather and you underscore, social media has contributed to a change of rules of the game.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Thanks, Toni. It sounds like Kevin Ruck and you are onside about the difference between deliberate, long-term programs for employee engagement (and in your case, other stakeholder groups) versus short-term programs in an attempt to “activate advocacy” through either incentives or (not-so) subtle pressure.

      I’m not sure I fully understand what you mean by the “give a ‘ring’ to” phrase—do you mean a ring like a telephone call to communicate further on what is already in the employee-relationship DNA or do you mean an analogy to a physical “gold ring” signifying that OK, you as an employee were determined to be communicative and valued enough (in terms of your external networks) to be a part of an incentivized program of advocacy?—so please feel free to elaborate further.

      Social media is indeed changing the rules of the game, but to date I think it is underscoring more fully which organizations already are communicative and doing things mindfully—as evidenced from the words of critical-thinking, organic advocates like Augie Ray, Jon Iwata, Tom Murphy and Kelly Hungerford—versus companies that continue to try and “manage” employees and external “messaging.” And, yes, there are more companies still in the latter category.

      I really liked Kelly’s final thoughts: “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.

      On a side note, I think social media offers tremendous opportunities for those individuals whose actual job title and focus is about sales….

  3. Jean Valin says:

    Very stimulating and complex thoughts expressed in this new post Judy. Where to start?

    Empowering employees with relevant and complete information is not a new strategy but SM has indeed changed the nature of interactions that employees may have within their own spheres. The notion of control that managers cling to like mad, has largely disappeared yet managers hope to regain some control or still think they do control messaging and tactical use of SM.

    I relate far more to IBM’s way of thinking: Nurture the character of your organisation (as per Melbourne Mandate) and allow employees who want to do so, to be active in SM as individuals associated with the company (I like the ethical approach in your Microsoft example).

    You really should not try to control too much with rigid control of tweets (like the Canadian government’s inane control structure does) but rather empower staff with freedom to speak within borders, which depending on your corporate culture and the character of an organisation, can range from guidelines and best practices (my preference) to ‘tweets and blog comments should be vetted’ type of environment.

    If you expect to have active staff–without demanding they become brand ambassadors–you owe it to staff to train them and provide rules of engagement.

    Sadly the majority of organisations I know are not even close to the Paper.li, IBM,s or Microsoft of this world.

    Great post with delightful complexity.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Bingo to your “still think they do control messaging and tactical use of social media,” Jean!

      Strategy is the why and the what. Tactical relates to things like the where, when and how. And for the purposes of my argued post, marketing departments or consultants thinking the where and how should focus on employee’s personal social media accounts and relate to helping to sell, via canned and pressurized marketing messages (when they weren’t hired for that purpose) rings false.

      Some individuals have an inherent sense of what is appropriate, both from their own area of expertise and position and knowledge about the corporate character, but others—likely the majority of most staff in most companies—are less certain. So take away the questions and uncertainties. Yes, make it mindfully evident about what is and is not acceptable practices, including the business ethics expected in social and elsewhere. And train them, continuously!

      If you recall in our (mutual) mentee) Katie Sheppet’s final part of her trilogy post, she talked about one of the similarities between Edelman and Allianz:

      Both companies publish a wealth of information and intellectual property on internal staff portals and external websites. We each have internal company newsletters. At Edelman we have the Edelman Learning Institute (ELI) where all employees must complete modules on Edelman’s corporate practices and policies, Allianz also had an online E-campus.

      For the smaller companies, it can be more along the lines of Paper.li (in social): “We do have a loose, informal set of social media guidelines that began as a simple list of observations (and notes) on situations [Kelly Hungerford]I faced during [her] first year at Paper.li… prefer to think of them as a practical guide to dealing with complicated situations rather than formal guidelines.

      It’s interesting how you reference the Canadian government and the need to control the messaging (baked into the operational DNA and made evident in numerous other scenarios and cases), because at last Friday’s CPRS Mini PR Conference held in Toronto, Ira Basen was one of the speakers. He spoke on his Brand New World research. Whereas his CBC Radio documentary spent a fair bit of time on personal branding, this presentation was more focused along the lines of the (Tom Foremski-inspired) “corporate media” aspect. Ira used the Prime Minister’s site as an example of new-style government “communication” with the general public, with no need for third-party journalist interpretation and commentary for “earned” media…. Of course it’s a site that is really a marketing, broadcasting style of messaging, with zero sense of the people/staff behind the Prime Minister’s Office, above and beyond the PM and key Cabinet Ministers, etc.

      Another (CPRS) Mini PR Conference session that was excellent was the long-term “change management” (an initiative led by internal communications, but with great support from HR) and (deeper) employee engagement program that Joanne Kennedy, the director of corporate communications, was invited to share:

      Sanofi Canada, a healthcare company headquartered in Laval, Quebec, recently concluded a major 12-month employee communication initiative designed to help the organization overcome a set of challenges related to the relocation of its corporate offices and a fundamental transition in its corporate work culture.

      Although this wasn’t really an external “socializing” effort, it was quite interesting that she shared an informal benchmark for success that is now housed on Youtube: the staff-initiated participation (proposed only 24-hours prior, in the same cafeteria) in a Sanofi Canada #dayofhappiness employee flashmob during the International Day of Happiness (March 20, 2014). Apparently the other senior managers were thrilled about the flash mob and the “happy and engaged” employees participating; their only complaint was why they weren’t asked to participate. (Answer: they weren’t in the staff cafeteria when the suggestion was broached to Joanne Kennedy!) Look for the (Portuguese) president at the 33-second mark.

      (And here is a link to an article Ira also referenced, Tom Foresmski’s Native Ads Are The Worst Idea In The World – NYTimes Is Clueless, because I claim this type of “employee advocacy” program is similar to native advertising.)

      I still have high hopes for 21st-century corporate media developed by connected companies that are also “communicative organizations,” but those hopes flag in regards to companies with single-minded employee advocacy programs that simply have a marketing and sales bent.

  4. Judy – the other commenters do a great job of capturing why this post is important, so I’ll just focus on one aspect of it. The desire for employees to be “brand champions” and take responsibility for selling (or at least speaking out) about a brand is pure marketing fluff. This effort reinforces an exchange relationship between organization and employee, a transaction based on pay for service. For a lot of employees, that’s what a job is, and it’s needed. We know, however, that the best places to work feature a deeper relationship — a communal relationship where employees feel like part of a team engaged in important work, a situation where team members have a strong identification with the organization, mission and clients. Measuring the strength of that identification, the strength of the communal relationship, helps employee communicators be more effective and evaluate their success.

    Years ago at a financial company, the firm created a referral program for friends/family — the idea was for you to fill out this form and give one part to your pal, who then would bring it to the bank to open an account. If this happened, you’d get a spiff. Sounds great, right? Not so much. Disaster. Employees knew where the bank was falling short in terms of technology and customer service. They were aware of coming changes on fees, and rumored changes to the branch network. They didn’t want their families to come to the bank only to need to make changes later… Employees resented the idea that they needed to hit quotas of referrals — these were mainly lower-level people still either searching for their careers or otherwise not “career minded” who just needed the security of their jobs.

    Selling is a skill — an art — it’s not pushing messages, it’s listening to needs and providing solutions that match the needs. Too many marketers have forgotten that, and this is why they desperately seek to find yet another batch of eyeballs and ears to reach instead of pushing back to the organization on product development that better matches customer needs, and improved customer service.

    Phooey on them.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Totally agree with you, Sean. I particularly like your use of “communal” relationships, and teams that function well are definitely a manifestation of that trait.

      One thing to note, the use of “brand champions” was from Kevin Ruck, not me. I do think staff can be brand champion relating to both appreciating and understanding the brand. What I don’t believe is that even the most-ardent champion needs to feel a pressure to be a vocal “advocate” for the company in a public-facing role, particularly strictly for commercial purposes and on his or her own social media accounts.

      Your personal-experience example of the financial company was a great analogy of why being a suggested “employee brand” can backfire. And I agree that selling is both a skill and an art. The relationship building equation can be very similar to that of public relations, except the goals are more specific: finding and filling the clients’ pain points, through the company’s product or service.

      Have you ever been to Jamaica? I ask because “spiff” has a different meaning there than it appears to have in Cleveland. ;-)

      Thank you for agreeing to write a post that expands some of these concepts of language usage, relationships, expectations and turf wars. (Now if you would just approve the edit, I could hit Publish. Hint. Hint.)

  5. toni muzi falconi says:

    What I mean by the ‘ring’ analogy, Judy, is the first that comes to my mind when I hear, again and again as a lithany, professional, academic colleagues, as well as students, use the term ‘engagement’.

    Reciprocal awareness of parties to a relationship precedes involvement….. that, in turn, precedes ‘engagement’ ….. that may end in marriage (then divorce) or breakup.
    This is the life of a relationship and the ‘ring’ is the moment in which involvement becomes engagement.

    If organizations were to engagé with ALL stakeholders we would be doing either of two things:
    a) nothing more than business as usual and calling it engagement;
    b) going crazy and transforming the organization into a wedding service.
    Of course the first is the most obvious.

    Let me explain: stakeholders are not selected by the organization but viceversa. It is the stakeholder (aware and interested in interacting with the organization) who ‘holds the stake’ not viceversa.

    It’s the organization’s role to INVOLVE all stakeholders by facilitating and even incentivating their access and feedback to the organization’s behavioral narrative.

    When, however, a specific decision on a specific issue demands the active cooperation (critical or supportive) of stakeholder groups that have a relevant say on the decision or that issue, then the organization ENGAGES with them…and this is a much tougher job that requires much more time, commitment and hard work.

    Let me also address another issue that was evoked by more than one participant in this stimulating debate.

    I have just finished writing an article that is due to appear in an important european magazine on the first year of Francis’ papacy as a prelude to the paper I will be presenting in Bournemouth in early July with Giovanni Tomassetti in the context the International History of public relations conference.
    There are two paragraphs of this article I wish to cite in this context:

    the first:
    …. Albeit with minor exceptions, only in recent years have for-profit commercially driven corporations begun to transit their stakeholder relationships efforts from a useful and ‘nice-to-have’ feature to a structural, fundamental and strategic part of their own core businesses.
    One might also imagine that consolidated customer relationship efforts to traditionally increase sales (marketing) are rapidly up-scaling in practice to a wider and more sophisticated involvement of relevant and carefully identified internal and external stakeholder groups (shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, public policy makers, communities, active citizenship groups…): idea by idea, value by value, issue by issue.

    the second:
    ….Is it only suggestive to evoke another analogy with contemporary studies in strategic planning analysis who have recently introduced and elaborated the notion of the network society in the interpretation of the 2010 Stockholm Accords developed by the Global Alliance for Public
    Relations and Communication Management? The traditional and consolidated strategic planning process from the late seventies of last century, based on Michael Porter’s value chain, mostly linear and material, becomes at least integrated by another planning process based on value networks. This process recognizes that a substantial part of the value created by the organization is generated today from and within fuzzy (nonlinear) and intangible networks that normally disrupt the distinction between internal and external publics. Members of these networks play specific and value added roles defined by their relationships rather than by their formal position. The generated value is therefore based on the quality of the relationships that exist between members of each network and on the quality of the relationships which exist between the various networks.
    Maybe this ‘analogy’ helps explain the intrinsic ‘sense’ of the radical re organization going on in Francis’ Vatican and the getting rid of the many shadowy figures that have populated the Vatican corridors particularly during his predecessor’s papacy, provoking continued financial scandals and corruption.

    I hope this makes sense and has added to this great discussion.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Thank you, Toni. That does help to make sense of your earlier comment . So, it appears that engagement is a term that is being so bandied about when it comes to employees that it has become trendy, rather than illuminating—similar to authenticity and transparency.

      So, just like I argue for precision in defining public relations, does employee engagement also need more focus in terms of type, breadth and depth?

      Doing a Thesaurus search for the word engagement proved interesting. It pulled up the following:

      appointment, meeting, date, rendezvous, commitment, promise, pledge, vow, obligation, assurance, binder, dedication, loyalty, devotion, steadfastness, allegiance, faithfulness, staunchness, obligation, duty, responsibility

      For day-to-day employee engagement, I would add in Sean’s “communal” term, as well as things such as regular information-sharing, productivity and general contentment.

      Regarding your Pope Francis case study—and combining it with the Sanofi Canada one I heard about last Friday—could a case be made for employee engagement relating to significant change management, rather than reducing it to wedding planning?

      Indeed this discussion is great. Just like the piffle post, I’m learning and adjusting my thinking, based on all of these great comments!

  6. Helen Slater says:

    Judy – I do have one complaint – this intelligent post and discussion has totally absorbed me and allowed me to justify my procrastination. In reading the responses to your post, it convinces me more than ever that if an organisation really wants employees to be ‘brand ambassadors’ (jargon I dislike), then there is a simple approach: Be a good employer, treat staff well, pay them properly (McDonald’s could look at this one), be a good corporate citizen in the community, pay suppliers promptly, treat customers well and have good products that do as promised.

    Simplistic? Maybe. I don’t think so. This is what what we do is based upon – Internal and external communication strategy supporting business strategy to achieve prescribed objectives.

    People working for companies operating on such a basis will become employees who have no hesitation in recommending their employer to others. Such an employer won’t ask their employees to use personal social media platforms for company promotional purposes. They won’t need to.

    There is of course, also the legal question. To whom do the connections made by people using these personal platforms belong? I have a hazy recall of a major court case where an ex-employee was taken to court by his former employer, which was claiming his personal Twitter account and the associated followers belonged to the employer. Why? Because the employee had used the account to promote his employer’s business and as a result had gained thousands of followers. The ex-employee won the case.

    Your other respondents have expressed admirably my thinking around this question. In short, ‘engagement’ with ’stakeholders’ belongs with the company’s staff employed to do this.

    And, my only other query is: When can we find other terminology for ‘engagement’ and ’stakeholders’?

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Thanks, Helen, for taking up my suggestion and adding your LinkedIn Group commentary here—expanded, in fact. And I think this might be the first time you’ve commented here, so welcome!

      You say, “People working for companies operating on such a basis will become employees who have no hesitation in recommending their employer to others.”

      You made use of the more-established “brand champion” term, indicating your dislike. But to me that is what a brand “champion” is—employees who have no hesitation in recommending their employer to others—ergo, I don’t have a problem with that particular word (if you look back over the post, it was Kevin Ruck who was dismissive of it).

      In fact, I was deliberate in calling our Paper.li @PRConversations Champions, because the idea is that the people most closely connected with our blog on an ongoing basis will indeed write a post, comment, share posts and recommend it to peers.

      That’s different than a suggestion to be an “advocate.” It was also deliberate including the brief definition in the post:

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

      Unlike a self-selected champion—whether or not through an official program or platform—I think an advocate has to be organic, coming from a place of deep conviction. So to label a program indicating that suggestions could/should be made to staff to be “employee advocates” rings false. Particularly if the writing will be prescribed, as will be the platforms where to do it. True advocates tend to speak or write in every place possible.

      But it does speak to the need for more precision in language and/or over-used or misunderstood terms. I’m interested in knowing why you dislike the term stakeholders, as having a stake in an organization seems to make sense to me.

      The only other quibble I have with your comment (because I agree wholeheartedly with your basic thoughts and sentiments) is to single out McDonald’s for censure. I don’t think its staff are paid less than the typical fast food chain and what it has going for it is an exceptional, management training facility. Just like Coke, many cite McDonald’s as a company that provided them with excellent training and opportunities that continue to influence their careers. And even if the typical employee doesn’t advance, it is a company that offers many a first-job opportunity. And I really don’t hear many young people complaining about the McDonald’s workplace or culture, particularly in regards to its community involvement.

      Agree with you about the legal question. My recollection, shared on LinkedIn, was someone whose LinkedIn contacts were being sought by the former employer. As I consider LinkedIn my “anchor” (and definitely longest—beta group, 2003) PROFESSIONAL social network, I certainly wouldn’t sit silent about being told what to post on my own account or give up my personally “earned” contacts to a past employer or client company.

      Of course I think the best companies, with the thoughtful corporate culture, values, defined mission, and so on, would be the very last ones to either suggest canned marketing messages or try to harvest contacts from personal social media accounts from former employers.

      • Helen Slater says:

        You are right, McDonalds does have excellent training and opportunities. I used them as as an example of the industries that do need to pay their front-line staff more and was a bit flippant in that!. Their community involvement is above reproach, and as an overall corporate citizen, they are pretty darned good. That’s why it is disappointing they don’t pay more to their front-liners.

        To go to the questions of brand champions vs advocates – I agree with you Judy. I used the word ambassadors rather than champions, just because that is another term that I’m accustomed to. I am not fussed on either term, not because they’re not useful, but we use so much jargon and after a while, jargon becomes loose in meaning and is sprinkled around like confetti without thought as to its appropriateness, and being precise in usage is essential.

        Likewise stakeholders and engagement. I have seen these terms used poorly. People with a vested interest in an organisation are stakeholders and in this sense it is perfectly reasonable. It is too often used where the term audience is better used and again, loose use of jargon (or terminology if you prefer) becomes confusing and leads to poor outcomes. Of course, audiences can also be stakeholders, but not necessarily.

        Engagement is also often used where consultation is a more accurate term. There is a big difference between the two. Local government is particularly good at using these terms interchangeably to the detriment of both as expectations can be so misplaced as a result.

        • Judy Gombita says:

          I am so stealing this line Helen:

          “but we use so much jargon and after a while, jargon becomes loose in meaning and is sprinkled around like confetti without thought as to its appropriateness”

          Well, maybe I will use it and whenever there is room (in social media) give you attribution. :-)

          On a more serious note, I really like you pointing out: Engagement is also often used where consultation is a more accurate term.

          So…if we take Toni’s two versions of “employee engagement,” when is it really more of a consultation? The day-to-day business or the big-event (or change management) planning?

          • Helen Slater says:

            Hmmm – I’m going to have to read that Weber Shandwick report you’ve just pointed us to thoroughly, Judy. Activism? That’s a strong word (way past engaged), and quite bluntly, I have yet to come across an organisation here in NZ that can proudly describe its employees as being so keen on their employer they are activists. I shall reserve further opinion till I’ve read that report properly.

            Going to your question above, I’d like to go back to what we mean by engagement and the meanings you pulled up are interesting. Commitment, steadfast, loyalty etc. If we put that into the context of employees, we should then think about two-way engagement. When we talk about engagement in the workplace, it’s simply employee engagement we discuss, which is an interesting term meaning employees engaged with their employer is the objective

            Surely, if we apply the general principles of good communication in whatever sphere, it’s two-way communication we aim for. As with engagement for marriage (refer Toni’s example) it must be two-way. So why do we talk about employee engagement? Are employees the only ones who must make the commitment, be loyal and steadfast in this relationship?

            After all (harking to stakeholders), the employer also has a stake in its workforce, so should we instead be aiming for organisational engagement? And we also need to establish the level of engagement required. Is it the activism that Weber Shandwick writes about, or is it the level of engagement in any relationship on a day-to-day level, where we allow ourselves to show our colours, to speak our minds and yet still be committed to the relationship (sort of complaining about the dirty laundry on the floor and dishes not done but love ya anyway).

            Getting therefore to your question, Judy, day-to-day business requires at least the ‘love ya anyway’ level of engagement. The big event change management requires total commitment organisationally, where we need everyone to be advocates if not activists – a high level of engagement and achieving this requires nurture from employees and employers every day.

            However – and this is the nub of it in my mind – the practice in fact is employers decide on the change, then consult. Mostly (and this is anecdotal with no science behind it) employees are presented with the proposed change, communicated with on what the change will be and mean, and consulted about their opinion of the change. It is usually, however, a fait accompli with minor changes made only as a result of the consultation.

            The ideal is that employees should be engaged in the process, being fully part of the decision making – the partners being romanced and deciding together what the ring should be like and the wedding date.

            If you have a reciprocal relationship, you’re more likely to have an ‘engaged’ workforce loyal to an equally committed employer.

            A ‘fly-by’ response, Judy!

        • Judy Gombita says:

          (This is in response to your most-recent comment, Helen. For some reason I can’t use the Reply function after it.)

          Helen, I’m so glad this post has captured your interest and that you continue to weigh in. I’m also happy you’ve taken up the principals’ suggestion to work on a joint post with Toni Muzi Falconi about “buzzwords” in internal communications, versus real, long-term programs and their hoped-for outcomes.

          You wrote, “Are employees the only ones who must make the commitment, be loyal and steadfast in this relationship?” I would suggest that companies where HR takes the lead in internal communications that is probably the expectation! Likely that would be the expectation of a marketing-driven leader, too.

          I really like your suggestion of “organisational communications” instead, as yes that does speak more to a sense of brand fidelity that could have an organic, socialized outcome.

          I mentioned the Sanofi Canada change management case study in an earlier comment, and even though its relationship to this external socializing post is tenuous, I can say that Joanne Kennedy did detail how the 12-month initiative to help the organization overcome a set of challenges related to the relocation of its corporate offices and a fundamental transition of its corporate work culture did very much engage a team of employees—I think the term was ambassadors—chosen from various departments and levels in the consultations and also ensured the feedback was a part of the final decision-making process (not tokenism)..

          Each ambassador would talk to a larger group of cohorts, inform them of how the move was unfolding and garner feedback. I asked her the question of whether any staff concerns actually impacted outcomes. Kennedy told me there were two major decisions made after the consulting. One was that it was decided that EVERYONE would work in an open office space, the only exception being the president—originally (senior) management were to have offices ; staff felt this was unfair and the leadership team listened and agreed.

          The other major suggestion taken up by the change management team was for staff from different departments to get to know each other better prior to the move. Again, this came from the grassroots, the desire to get better acquainted (“We really don’t know people in most departments”)—particularly if their new department location would be different from the then-current office. So in the months prior to the move, Sanofi Canada organized what they characterized as a series of “speed-dating” breakfasts and luncheons, which we were told were both popular and successful in terms of acceptance and even some excitement for the coming move.

          Apparently there were smaller accommodations, too, like each staff member having a say on her or his new desk design—I think there were two or three options.

          So did the corporate culture change? When the move was first announced approximately 15 per cent of the workforce had abandoned ship and exited. Since the move to the new office there has been zero attrition. And the company has also been awarded one of those “best employer” rankings, I think for the Greater Montreal Area.

          Attrition rates unrelated to retirement and longevity of service, I think, do speak to an engaged workforce and a communicative organization.

  7. Catherine Arrow says:

    An absorbing post Judy and one that will inevitably elicit many perspectives. I have to agree with Heather that organisations sincere in their efforts to develop true employee engagement will be more likely to see organic social content result. Those who tie themselves in knots pushing for social advocacy from employees without first building real and productive relationships with their people are more likely to experience reputational damage rather than gaining the social capital they might be hoping for.

    Personally, I am always interested to discover whether an organisation seeking employee advocacy – through whatever channel – is truly interested in employee relationships and well-being or whether they are simply paying lip-service to something they have a vague notion may improve their bottom line or organisational outcomes.

    Research has shown that employee engagement improves organisational performance and success – last year’s Harvard Business Review paper on the subject produced some very interesting insights. Since William Kahn’s seminal paper in 1990 our understanding of employee engagement has improved dramatically, although my personal view is that our depth of understanding is still very much a work in progress.

    Rather like public relations, employee engagement has a plethora of definitions. One which I refer to frequently is the following:

    ‘The psychological state in which employees feel a vested interest in the company’s success and are both willing and motivated to perform to levels that exceed stated job requirements. It reflects how employees feel about the overall work experience, organisational leaders, work environment, recognition and rewards received for efforts’ – Harter JK, Schmidt FL and Hayes TL – ‘Business Unit Relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement and business outcomes; a meta analysis – Journal of Applied Psychology, Volume 87 pp268-269.

    Given the drivers of engagement are the work itself, development opportunities, confidence and trust in leadership, recognition and rewards and (trumpet sounds) organisational communication, I’ve tended to articulate this to clients and colleagues using Aon Hewitt’s Say-Stay-Strive model, with a few additions (in brackets) of my own:

    Say – speaks positively to others inside and outside the organisation about their place of work (along with their role and organisational capability)
    Stay – they want to be there and will work to maintain their position (additionally they will seek to recruit others they believe will fit the culture)
    Strive – extra time, effort and personal resource over and above their ‘pay grade’ (and show courage and confidence in their feedback to leadership)

    All of which brings us back to the ’say’ – the social media advocacy at the heart of your post. If there is a genuine concern for employees and a sincere belief that a highly developed internal relationship is in the best interests of both the employer and the employee, there is a likelihood that organic advocacy will result. If not, then employees are more likely to direct their social efforts to Glassdoor and other ‘tell all’ apps that take employers on a journey through a very different looking-glass.

    The Engage for Success (UK) site dedicated to this topic, along with the Engage for Success report to the British Government (MacLeod Report) might make some interesting additional reading for those concerned with this topic.

    And in the meantime, I’ll look forward to more perspectives on your post. Thanks Judy.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Agreed, Cathy. I took the “organic social content result” to be Heather expanding on my thoughts in this paragraph:

      “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.”

      Thank you for citing that research. Regarding whether organizations are truly interested in employee relationships and well-being, I suspect the most dedicated companies are ones where both corporate communications—in particular where there is a well-developed internal communications arm and programs—and HR are at the table in the C-suite. This is because corporate communications can gently assist HR in considering the needs of employees as an equal stakeholder (sorry, Helen!) as being equal to the employer as an entity. Teamwork, rather than the needs of one superseding the other.

      In this particular case, I think it’s primarily marketers thinking they know best on how to expand the digital footprint of the company for transactional communication purposes. I’ve even seen posts (primarily from boutique agency blogs) claiming that employee or internal communications is part of the marcom skill set. Which frightens me. The concept of pure-marketing focused staff or contracted consultants leading the internal communications charge is even worse than marketing thinking it should be responsible for customer service staff (i.e., now it’s not enough to chisel away at public relations remit externally, they want the internal influence, too). In some smaller companies, like Paper.li, the role can be a hybrid one, where consideration is given to a variety of motivations within the corporate cultural context.

      I hope you will consider a post for PR Conversations to develop further how you implement Aon Hewitt’s Say-Stay-Strive model in your own practice—it sounds fascinating!

      We did publish Rachel Miller’s post in November 2012 about the UK’s Engage for Success program. Perhaps it’s time for us to get an update on how successful it has been, including past or current challenges.

      I also welcome (even) more perspectives on this post. My primary concern was with the growing use of the terms “employee advocacy” and “employee brands,” but what raises the discussion to a higher level is how public relations and communication management staff or consultants can lead—or at a minimum lend an assist—to genuine employee engagement, information sharing, communal activities and general contentment—or whatever terms we decide to call it, both internally and externally.

  8. Judy Gombita says:

    In case you haven’t seen (or read) it, Weber Shandwick LDN has produced a study related to this topic.

    Blog post: Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism

    Or access the report proper.

  9. Excellent article Judy, thoroughly enjoyed reading it and also the insightful comments below that feature lots of familiar names.

    I agree with so much of what’s been said and am increasingly seeing the trend towards organisations looking at their employees through a different lens in terms of wondering “how can we get our employees to be our best brand ambassadors/advocates”, which is frankly alarming in many situations. Not least because it’s the “getting” part that seems to be tangling them up.

    Employees have the right to keep their personal and professional lives separate. “Using” employees’ social media accounts/networks doesn’t sit right with me.

    Rather than focusing energies on, as Kevin Ruck describes it, informed employee voice, many organisations are looking for ways to harness the power of that internal voice and share it externally.

    There are some companies, who in my view, have got the balance right, or certainly appear to be making steps in the right direction. Some of the best examples I’ve seen are around storytelling, where employees are sharing their view of the world with each other and with customers, which can lead to unintentional advocacy. For me, I translate that to be authentic and real. As in I can see employees sharing their stories, unprompted < which is crucial, and because that choice is there, that’s what makes it powerful.

    Examples include Sainsbury's supermarket employees' Little Stories: http://www.allthingsic.com/sains/ and HSBC bank's HSBC Now YouTube channel: http://www.allthingsic.com/hsbc/ (internal vids shared externally). Obviously both are via the company's 'official' channels and one could assume because that's the case they ARE prompted, so the choice comes before then – employees choosing who takes part or not.

    When travel company Thomas Cook rebranded itself in Oct 2013, it told its 27,000 employees a fortnight before and asked them to keep it under wraps. On the external launch day, employees shared photos of themselves via their personal social media accounts supporting the brand, wearing the new colours of the logo and tweeting their views. One has to wonder if it would have been quite so vocal and authentic had they not been brought in early and made to feel part of that change. You couldn't help but feel the tangible excitement. For me, that's an example of when internal communication works successfully and spills over into external, with employees at the heart. (http://www.allthingsic.com/thomascookic/)

    Thank you again for a thought-provoking article, Rachel.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Thanks for the comment and the examples, Rachel.

      Of course I’m fond of the idea of the “organizational narrative” being expressed by many internal and external stakeholders (and Heather Yaxley explored the digital options), but sometimes I think the true “championing” or “engagement” isn’t always evident, due to a number of factors.

      Some employees might not want to share things externally due to privacy concerns (not wanting their names/faces out there) or it not being “generationally” a trait.

      I found it interesting in that Weber Shandwick study that 50 per cent of the social media accounts “sharing” was being done by Millennials.

      Isn’t that really just a “business selfie?!”

      And, given the expectation that this generation will have seven or more jobs in a lifetime, how much of an impact will the “advocacy” have if they are in the role for a year or two…and then move on? How much will we believe the next set of “advocacy” in the new roles?

      I would think that “employee engagement” also speaks to wanting to be affiliated with a company for a decent length of time.

      • toni muzi falconi says:

        Don’t want to change the subject, Judy, but you touched on the issue of time and this is a highly relevant issue that is only haphazardly touched on by us.

        There are many implications:
        a) sustainabiity (in the french interpretation of durabilité) only gives for granted that organizations who are in it for the long term need a licence to operate and to keep it;

        b) in the 2008 awpage authentic enterprise paper there is mention that authenticiy (whatever it means..) only relates to organizations who are in it for the long term.

        Therefore most organizations who today come in and go out, are not subject to either being authentic or sutainable (of course, as long as they operate within the boundaries of the law of wherever they operate from).
        And this according to economists applies to the vast majority who do not plan to live for more than five years (finance, technology, non profits, many small and social businesses…).

        The time issue obviously has implications over the involvement engagement argument.
        In five years it is certainly important to involve, much less so to to engagé seriously.

        Besides, our stereotyped concept of mainstream corporates (huge, listed…) is giving gournd to fast living techs, bcorps and public private partnerships (shale energy for example).

        All these are not there for the long term.

        Make sense?

        • Toni – bravo! You articulate something that I’ve been thinking about for some time. In fact, ever since the big US car companies got into financial trouble in 2008 (remember those ill-conceived private jet flights to Washington from Detroit)?

          My question was – and is – who says that companies have to live forever? Indeed, there are inherent dangers in (a) taking that viewpoint and (b) allowing organisations become ‘too big to fail’ (as was said of many financial institutions).

          As I understand things the vast majority of people (at least in the UK) are actually employed by SMEs (ie with under 250 employees) and maybe ironically for PR practitioners, few of these employ our services (although Moss et al 2003 is the only paper I know on this sector).

          And, as you indicate, these will probably not be around forever, we need nimble organisations today (rather than the goliaths that were more appropriate in the last century) and people today do not expect (or probably want) to be with one employer for most of their careers.

          Extending that to other stakeholders (or whatever we wish to call them) – do stockholders stick with the same companies for decades? Do customers stick with the same businesses – especially in an age of increased competition and ease of shopping around? Can suppliers rely on businesses for long-term contracts (well PR firms certainly don’t)? Can local communities rely on businesses remaining in one place for generations as they used to do?

          Indeed, even Milton Friedman’s belief that companies serve society by paying taxes and employing people is challenged by the fact that the likes of Starbucks, Google and Amazon use globalisation to reduce their tax liabilities and employ relatively few people.

          Back to the big US auto firms – their commitment to employees in the mid-20th century arguably led to increased benefits being offered which after decades of cut-backs led to them being handicapped by huge pension liabilities. So today we have poor pension provision – even if our pension pots (and in the UK case our expectation of state pensions) have been raided…

          I’ll stop before I get too depressed by the whole thing – but I think that this is the harsh reality of the world of work today and frankly employees would be much happier to have their basic needs met rather than focus on actualisation of engagement, let alone being expected to be brand ambassadors, champions, advocates or activists…

          • Judy Gombita says:

            Heather, regarding your “employed by SMEs (ie with under 250 employees) and maybe ironically for PR practitioners, few of these employ our services…” I concur. I think to Richard Bailey’s comment on my piffle post about how the sophistication of public relations strategy and tactics is more likely related to type, size and age of company. I think the same likely is true about internal communications and employee engagement.

            The Canadian auto-workers sector in Ontario has certainly been under fire for many years, primarily related to benefits and pension programs. Mexico and many states in the USA will happily help to relocate plants to places that aren’t unionized and where both wages are lower and benefits minimal.

            So the auto-sector workers have gone from a culture of union-won entitlement to being quite worried. Hundreds, maybe thousands, have lost jobs both in management and in the blue-collar jobs.

            One thing Canadian plants do have going for them is that investments—often from various levels of government—have gone into R&D, including significant upgrades, meaning that the plants, and by extension the remaining workers, are very productive. It’s the one calling-card they have against the other options available to the auto giants.

        • Judy Gombita says:

          I still owe response-comments to a few of you. I promise to attempt to answer as thoughtfully as the ones you left for me. (Still absorbing and thinking. But utterly thrilled and gratified at how wonderful this comments conversations has been–I’ve learned so much and keep changing my mind about what constitutes “engagement!”)

          In the meantime, as I was listening to this segment of one of my favourite CBC Radio shows this morning (The Current), I was struck by how the conversations about how to define “sustainability” for companies, given Toni’s comment of only yesterday. (Very different takes.)

          I hope you give it a listen (the entire segment is 27.27 min):

          Who ranks the rank-makers? The ethics behind best-company lists

        • Judy Gombita says:

          It does make sense, Toni. Particularly as the startups often involve quite young and obviously smart employees, who want to develop an idea, market it, and then cash in with a big buyout by Google or Facebook.

          I pulled up some of my notes from when I was reviewing Dave Gray’s The Connected Company that you might find interesting:

          Chapter Seven: Complexity changes the game

          The complexity of the new networked, interdependent economy creates an ambiguous, uncertain, competitive landscape. Companies must be flexible enough to rapidly respond to changes in the environments, or risk extinction.

          Page 64. The S&P 500 has fewer and fewer long-term survivors. New entrants aren’t faring much better. The average life expectancy of a company in the S&P 500 has dropped from 75 years in 1937, to 15 years in a more recent study.

          Turnover in the Fortune 1,000 is also increasing. If your company is in the Fortune 1,000, the chance that you will still be there in 10 years is diminishing rapidly.

          Much of this is due to the rate of technological change and global competition.

          It would appear that true employee—or organizational—engagement is going to get harder to do, as time isn’t on a company’s side.

          Unless, of course, companies are happy with Millennials simply taking Instagram selfies in their work environment (maybe during a lunch training session) or wearing a T-shirt with a logo when out at the local mall….

  10. Judy Gombita says:

    Noticed this Forbes post by Jeanne Meister in one of my LinkedIn Groups (Social Media for Public Relations)

    Social Media: Moving From Danger To Brand Building Opportunity

    Although I applaud MasterCard for developing its (clearly written) social media guidelines and instituting its “social media hands-on training” (the two initiatives resulting in approximately 40 per cent of employees participating in this “brand ambassador” program), it does concern me that only 10 per cent of staff have taken the training and that the vast majority of staff doing the sharing (mainly on their own accounts) appears to be Millennials.

    Again, isn’t much of this just #businessselfies?

  11. Augie Ray says:

    Excellent article, Judy.

    I think the legal, ethical and reputational issues of employees as advocates are a long way from being understood. If a company takes a Pollyanna view of things, then every paid employee is a loyal advocate ready to bring some sort of employer brand or marketing brand value to the brand.

    But we’ve seen so many times where employees embarrass a brand on social media. Having employees put their employers front and center sounds well and good until one posts a blog post about shooting a polar bear (http://www.experiencetheblog.com/2012/03/your-brand-and-employees-repugnant.html) or make a racist joke (http://www.experiencetheblog.com/2012/07/from-olympians-to-interns-7-ways-to.html).

    Then there are the issues relating to when employees become detractors. In the US, the right to complain about working conditions in a place where other employees can see and share in the discussion is protected by the National Labor Relations Act (subject to some important caveats).

    And what about the legal issues? Should hourly employees who tweet about their employer during non-working hours get overtime? Are people who tweet about employers during work hours being paid endorsers who must disclose their material relationship in every post or tweet, per the FTC guidelines? And what if an employee is accused of slandering the competition or a vendor? Who is responsible for the defense–the employee (since he or she acted in his or her own social profile) or the company (who actively encouraged employees to have a larger voice on behalf of the brand)?

    So, which is it? Do employers want employees out there sharing authentically and honestly–both the good and the bad? Do they want employee’s personal social profiles to be associated with and inseparable from the brand–no matter what?

    There will be lots of hard lessons learned on this topic in the years to come!

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Thank YOU for your contributions to this post, Augie, both the actual quote and the writing you did prior to me, which demonstrated how our thinking is in alignment.

      I particularly like how you make use of your Forrester-honed skills to provide statistical proof, in addition to anecdotal case studies.

      Indeed, the legal, ethical and reputational issues of employees is something I don’t think the typical marketer takes into account when proposing this simplistic idea of employee advocates.

      I’m hoping that conversations such as this one happening in the comments section of my post will be listened to by wiser heads, so their companies and staff—present or former—don’t have to learn hard lessons, but instead will adjust their strategy, thinking and practices…..

  12. Kevin Ruck says:

    Informed Employee Voice and Advocacy

    All organisations would love their employees to post positive comments about them on social media; this is good for their reputation. It is especially important in an era of flat lining trust in CEOs, as reported in the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer.

    However, just as pursuing happiness is not likely to lead to happiness, pursuing advocacy is not likely to lead to authentic advocacy.

    Advocacy or brand champion ‘programmes’ are sometimes akin to cortisone injections that enable a player to perform better in a game, but the long term solution means addressing the root cause of the problem. Worse still are advocacy programmes that aim to turn employees into games show hosts on speed, as if advocacy is doing what you normally do only faster and with false energy.

    Organisations that prepare messages for employees to use in their social media are really missing the point. Followers, friends, family and consumers are cute readers of tweets and status updates – they read carefully between the lines and can spot a ‘placed’ message a mile off.

    So, how do organisations get to the point where employees are more likely to post positively about their organisation in an authentic way?

    In my research, two principle internal communication practices were identified that are strongly correlated to organisational engagement; keeping employees informed and giving them a say about what goes on. The empirical evidence for this in my research corroborates other studies that consistently point to the importance of employee voice inside an organisation (for example, the MacLeod and Clarke review, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and Involvement and Participation Association reports).

    What I have found is that there is limited value in giving employees a voice unless they are well informed in the first place. This has led me to develop a new concept: ‘informed employee voice’ as the basis for strong organisational engagement. My research also suggests that advocacy is strongly correlated with what employees think and feel about the organisation. In other words, keeping employees informed and giving them a voice is associated with how engaged employees are with their organisation and this in turn is associated with advocacy.

    There is no simple shortcut to authentic advocacy. Kay Carberry, Assistant General Secretary of the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) made this point at the CIPD and London School of Economics (LSE) Voice and Value conference – she said that structures have to be in place to capture what employees say and ensure that responses are provided. It is only when we have got strong internal employee voice processes in place that employees are likely to post positive comments on social media without being prompted to do so.

    So, how good are organisations at keeping employees informed and giving them a say about what goes on? There are examples of good practice that can be seen in some case studies, although they may not necessarily tell the full story. I love a good case study as much as anyone and we have some great free resources in the UK, such as those provided by Simply Communicate and AllThingsIC. However, case studies are sometimes written without close scrutiny and they are often not supported with hard evidence. Case studies therefore need to be put into the context of broader, empirical, research to generate an objective assessment of the situation.

    A recent Weber Shandwick ‘employee activism’ study found that ratings for communication are low; fewer than three in 10 employees report that they are being communicated with, listened to and kept in the loop. Fewer than one in five (17%) highly rate communications from senior management.

    Satisfaction with employee voice is measured in a large-scale Work and Employee Relations Study (WERS) in the UK. The latest figures from 2011 are:

    • 52% employees rate organisations as good or very good at seeking their views
    • 46% employees rate organisations as good or very good at responding to suggestions
    • 34% employees rate organisations as good or very good at allowing them to influence decisions.

    The Towers Watson 2013/14 Change and Communication ROI Study Report found that 58% of employees said that their organisation was effective at helping them understand the business, however, only 37% of employees said that their organisation was effective at asking for rapid feedback about their opinions on the company.

    When it comes to internal social media, a recent CIPD Social technology, social business? report found that the reason that employees use social media at work is for collaboration, knowledge sharing and networking, rather than to build the profile of the organisation. Where internal social media platforms exist, in 26% of organisations, they are used for one-way employee updates rather than for collaboration or collecting employee views.

    My reading of this data and other reports is that employees are not nearly well enough informed about what goes on as they could be. Senior manager communication is patchy, and generally not that trusted. Satisfaction with employee voice is gradually improving, but satisfaction with responses made to voice falls behind satisfaction with the opportunities given to have a say about what goes on. Employees are using social media more, although internal social media is still at an embryonic stage and where it is available it is generally being used as an alternative broadcast system rather than for gathering employee views. This is not to be pessimistic or to pour cold water on great initiatives, the review of data is simply to put ‘advocacy’ into a more objective context.

    When it comes to ‘employee advocacy’ I think it is time for a new definition. Instead of this being what organisations do to prompt employees to post positive comments, it should mean what organisations do to put employees first in every way, including keeping them informed about things that they want to know about and giving them a genuine say in what goes on. This approach is illustrated in Nayar’s book, Employee First Customers Second (see this Forbes article). Paradoxically, this internal focus is what will lead naturally to employees posting genuinely felt positive comments on external social media.

    • Kevin,

      You provide a wealth of information in your comment for follow up and you hit the nail on the head with this statement which I love!:

      “When it comes to ‘employee advocacy’ I think it is time for a new definition. Instead of this being what organisations do to prompt employees to post positive comments, it should mean what organisations do to put employees first in every way, including keeping them informed about things that they want to know about and giving them a genuine say in what goes on.”

      I couldn’t agree more. I see some organizations are doing this already and/or, at a minimum, trying to put the levers in place to put the employee first in order to achieve this. And trying does amount to something and employees appreciate and take note of genuine effort.

      Change does not take place overnight and the goal must be to move up the ladder and achieve much higher number than the Weber Shandwick ‘employee activism’ study. We (management and organizations) can do better!

    • toni muzi falconi says:

      great stuff as alwasy kevin… excellent.

    • Kevin – you’ve hit several really important points here. “employees are not nearly well enough informed about what goes on as they could be. Senior manager communication is patchy, and generally not that trusted.” There is literally too much information available about way too many subjects. What our org is doing is just one among a plethora of pieces. And, to the point I’ve made many times, the relationship between org and employee might be quite simple — exchange — and thus employees don’t self-select our info. The organizational rush to efficiency leads to wider spans of control for managers, so the ability to place things into context in a relevant way becomes exponentially more difficult. Electronic communication is insistent and the volume is huge — especially in larger, complex organizations. Everyone needs the leadership to endorse their specific silo offering, so there are too many memos touting too many products/services too often.

      “employees use social media at work is for collaboration, knowledge sharing and networking” — this one is essential — it almost proves my point that when we start thinking that all the communication we do is marketing, it leads to co-opting channels and reducing their effectiveness. Social Media is for those three things, it’s why it exists. It’s not a replacement for advertising, public relations, direct marketing, even as it has been exploited for those wider purposes.

      ” it should mean what organisations do to put employees first in every way” — Herb Kelleher as CEO of SW Airlines said words to the effect of, “if we take good care of our employees, they’ll take good care of our customers, and we won’t have to worry about shareholders.” We’ve gone too far to totally reverse this equation. Putting shareholders first leads to short-term wins, but long term losses. Employees are seen as cost centers when they should be seen as revenue and reputation facilitators.

      Thanks for a great comment.
      Sean

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Thank you Kevin for providing a comment that could be a stand-alone post here on PR Conversations. Per your request, I have now embedded all of the links for the various conferences and written work you have referenced. (Meaning for individuals subscribed to the comments section who have already read Kevin’s comment, you will probably find it worthwhile to return and check out the links.) http://ow.ly/vM0AV

      On the weekend I noticed another term that made me shudder: Employed media. (Eek!) I did tweet about the post by a Vancouver-based woman who specializes in tech PR, but will also supply it here: Employed Media: A Missed Opportunity in Your PR and Marketing Toolbox

      • Judy – just when I think that things can’t get any worse, along comes a term like ‘employed media’. Even worse that seeing employees as ‘human resource’ or ‘human capital’. It is just the same attitude as those stupid agencies who think PR Conversations is media that they can use for ‘content marketing’ when they email us both such… (add your own swear word here!).

  13. Talitha Jario says:

    Thanks Judy. Leaders do not understand the role corporate culture plays in shaping an organisation. Often, the communications department is left with the task of changing culture and pushing an agenda, management is clearly not prepared to act upon themselves. You’re right, we are not the decision makers but at times the responsibility of disseminating information sometimes lies on our shoulders as practitioners. Let’s keep engaging and sharing on the topics that affect our industry. Great Work!

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Thanks for the comment, Talitha (and welcome to PR Conversations)! I think when it’s great/visionary leadership it is understood how the corporate culture and values (including valuing employees as a resource, not a cost centre, per Sean Williams) impacts the workplace.

      The lesser leaders, perhaps not so much. But a corporate communication department certainly can’t “change” the culture (and it won’t get very far pushing management’s agenda) if it’s simply a tactical add-on of broadcasting “messaging” rather than one of dialogue and listening (i.e., true employee engagement).

      And in the better organizations (with the great leadership), often there is a chief communication officer (or chief of PR) who is at the leadership table. For example, in the comments section I talked about Joanne Kennedy, director of communications at Sanofi Canada (and part of the senior leadership team) and the “change management” programs she (and her staff) headed up (assisted by the director of HR).

  14. Tom Murphy says:

    There’s so much great content and discussion here that it’s a struggle to come up with something that adds additional context. :)

    Ultimately the question of employee engagement on social media is not a question that should be addressed in isolation as it’s far too complex and subject to a whole set of factors. Measurement of employee engagement externally is similarly challenging. To put stringent measures of success in place creates a false environment that essentially forces bad behavior.(Judy: Just FYI the comment auto-corrected my Int. English spelling of behaviour.. tut tut:))

    The starting point is getting your business in a good place. Treat your employees well, keep them informed, engage with them, ask their opinion, regularly measure internal sentiment, take feedback and act on it – where it makes sense.

    These kind of activities – many of which are driven through a smart internal communications process – will create an environment that is more likely to foster engaged employees who in turn are more likely to feel part of the organization and more likely to engage in social circles.

    The reality is many employees will not engage on your organization’s behalf in public because it’s not something they are interested in doing or do not feel it’s appropriate.

    The right approach is to ensure your employees are engaged, informed and participating in your organization and then for those who are interested in participating provide them with timely insight into what’s new and important.

    Of course there’s also a whole set of important processes and guidelines that need to be in place for employees to ensure you and your people are participating in a way that’s appropriate.

    Get the basics right, create the structures and the processes and then support people who do wish to promote your brand. That’s the best approach I’ve seen.

    Thanks to everyone for the insight.
    Tom

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Tom, you really don’t need to add anything “new” in the comments section, because you added so much to the post, proper!

      Plus I know you’ve told me, offline (many times) about how you “value” the culture and values at Microsoft. My understanding is that it’s not easy to get a job there. A good friend’s (former) partner went through numerous interviews to get hired (I think it was in the double-digit numbers), but has now worked there for quite a few years. Similar to you (being recruited to the Redmond HQ from Ireland), this person has also moved to another country (in this case, in the Pacific Asia region) to work for Microsoft.

      Ergo, just like the global Allianz employee culture of “opportunity” (as detailed by Katie Sheppet) exists not only within the organization, but also to other countries, I’m sure that is yet another reason for ongoing employee engagement, general contentment and productivity at Microsoft.

      True?

      • Tom Murphy says:

        Yes, I think I’d agree with you. Obviously there are some differences working at the HQ of a large company (and I have found this to be true at other companies I’ve worked at), but overall in my experience there is a consistent ‘culture’ throughout Microsoft.

  15. Judy Gombita says:

    I wanted to point your attention to an interesting series of articles that Glenn Gaudet, president and founder of GaggleAMP, is publishing on the LinkedIn platform. So far he has published two of the five–in both of these Myths posts his concepts/thoughts mirror that of this post’s subject experts:

    (1st of 5) Myths of Employee Social Media Advocacy

    (2nd of 5) Myths of Employee Social Media Advocacy

    Note that Glenn has offered PR Conversations a Public Gaggle, which I hope to activate/implement within the next month or so–first I’ll be “interviewing” Glenn Gaudet on this blog, about how his “advocacy” service can benefit both PR Conversations and those who choose to join and actively participate in PR Conversations’ Gaggle “sharing.”

  16. Judy,

    Congratulations on writing such a thought provoking post. The comments are enriching your content, extending the importance of the message here. You may need a follow up post to this discussion further the diverse aspects, success factors and dimensions of employee advocacy. There is a lot more to be discussed and debated!

    There can’t be enough said for the role leadership needs to take in nurturing and empowering employees, (regardless of the employee lifespan). There are such strong examples in your writing of this happening I can only be optimistic that more companies will hire the necessary leaders to put the right messages forward.

    Thank you for the opportunity to contribute the perspective of Paper.li. This post will undoubtedly live a long, long life.

  17. Judy Gombita says:

    Thank you, Kelly. In my interview with you—was it Part III?—I indicated that a lot of the time the PR Conversations community is of the silent variety. That is, except when people have questions or alternative information to offer. This post is a great example. It was also really gratifying that a student in PR commented on another post how she looks to this blog as a resource for her studies.

    Regarding your suggestion to write a further post, possibly. But just like I called upon Augie, Tom, Kevin and you to weigh in, I think it’s better to invite other people to carry the ball forward. A bit later today I will publish Sean Williams’ post that is a complementary topic to this one. We had discussed him doing it for awhile and he had done a first draft, but he modified it a bit after reading this post and the commentary that followed.

    Indeed, let’s celebrate great leadership and share it wherever possible. At a minimum let’s aim to provide posts and information where mediocre leaders grow to be better ones, based on qualitative proof.

    (I checked and updated this comment. It was Part II, rather than Part III, although this part does focus on “community!”):

    “I think the PR Conversations community is primarily of the silent variety. If I could use an analogy, think of a respected magazine or newspaper with thousands of readers. Only a small portion of them write a letter to the editor or engage in the online comments section. The true viability relates to the quality of the writers and topics covered, how many people continue to read and/or subscribe to it, etc. Does our licence to operate continue? Do the principals continue to earn loyalty through the type of posts written or commissioned (no-fee) as guest posts? Have we both focused and differentiated ourselves enough so that search engines continue to look kindly on our offerings?”)

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