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Employee advocacy: how to get it right


In this article we consider how businesses can implement an effective employee advocacy programme through staff engagement and empowerment.

In his 1981 short story, Johnny Mnemonic, the Canadian author William Gibson first envisaged a near future where communication via computer networks has become the dominant form of human interaction. Participation within a ubiquitous global net - an environment which Gibson later termed cyberspace – has made it ‘…impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information.’ Yet rather than creating a society of unconstrained corruption from the traditional centres of authority, this fictional cyberspace has led to a greater dispersion of power, where access to the infinitude of information held therein means that ‘Fragments… can be retrieved, amplified’ by anyone proficient in the tools of manipulation.

Sound familiar? Fast forward 35 years and Gibson’s imaginary future seems very real. Mass online surveillance and data collection by powerful elites is commonplace, yet widespread knowledge of the questionable practices of governments and corporations exists due to the actions of a diversity of dissident voices -  from whistleblowers and WikiLeaks to the more esoteric Anonymous – all of whom offer us free and unlimited access to confidential information which is regularly released into the multitudinous digital matrix, becoming part of our ever expanding encyclopedia of awareness.

In today’s information saturated world, power is intangible and can be wielded with great affect by anyone with the right skills and access to the global web. This new reality can prove to be very damaging. Individual crusades against products, services or employers can quickly spiral into international events thanks to a plethora of social media tools. And review sites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp and Glassdoor have enabled disgruntled silver-tongued consumers and employees to harm long standing reputations with scathing non-deletable opinions. But… companies are slowly discovering that there is an easy defence against this march of unruly hostility – use employee advocacy to ensure employees spread positive messages about the brand.  

The 2013 Trust Barometer report, published by global PR firm Edelman, confirmed that public trust in the opinions of employees far outweighs that of a company’s PR department, CEO, or Founder. Yet, despite this well publicised fact, the concept of employee advocacy – getting employees proactively engaged in the promotion of your business – is widely misunderstood and underutilised. According to various sources, there are essentially two core elements to any successful employee advocacy programme – engagement and empowerment.

First of all, employees can’t be forced to say nice things about their employer, they have to want to. In order for that to happen, companies must work hard to instil a sense of pride in their personnel. While factors like attractive remuneration and benefits packages are sure to create a degree of contentment amongst workers; it is initiatives that support personal growth, health and wellbeing and workplace culture, for example, that encourage genuine feelings of respect and dignity among staff  essential to any employee advocacy programme.  Embedding company values and aligning the organisation with perceived ‘positive impact’ causes, such as those linked to charitable or environmental affairs, also helps to boost beneficial reciprocity through tying people into a larger common purpose.

Secondly, once people are engaged, the most successful employee advocacy programmes seek to empower employees by giving them the freedom and tools to participate in brand building online. An excellent piece of research by MSL Group, part of global advertising agency Publicis, attempted to demonstrate how powerful employee opinion can be, when directed online. Its 2014 study highlighted that social media posts by employees reached 561% further than company posts. This demonstrates that, alone, marketing departments can only do so much, but more impactful exposure can be achieved if multiple channels across the business are collectively utilised to help boost employee advocacy. 

Education, therefore, is paramount. All employees should be confident in their use of social channels as well as their knowledge of their company’s history, products, services and plans. Nokia, for example, has a well-established employee advocacy programme, at the heart of which is staff education. Every employee knows the history of the brand and where it’s going and are given access to a tool called Socialcast, which enables them to freely share their workplace stories across social media. Software company, Adobe, actually goes a step further and tests their employees company and product knowledge to ensure consistent and accurate messages as part of their employee advocacy programme. And at online fashion retailer, Zappos, staff are all given extensive Twitter training and also ranked and rewarded if they demonstrate expertise across different social channels.  

Other companies utilise sophisticated intranets, appoint employee advocacy leaders and send weekly updates to all staff, highlighting the latest sharable marketing content. These activities again make employees feel like they’re part of a bigger community and help facilitate active participation in the promotion of the business.   

The late French philosopher Michael Foucault famously wrote: ‘Where there is power, there is resistance’ and this age-old dichotomy seems more acute in today’s information economy, where battles for the world’s myriad of truths undoubtedly manifest by the hour. At their disposal, businesses have an army of employees which they can easily tool-up and send forth into the fray to flood the information superhighways with a propulsion of positivity - whether it’s promoting products and services, raising brand awareness or highlighting how much they enjoy their jobs - this all helps firms wrestle power back from potentially quarrelsome critics and offer some proactive resistance in today’s never-ending info-wars.

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