Whether you’re starting with a team of a few select people or encouraging larger scale participation from the get-go, your employees are the voice and personality of your brand online.
This is also the moment where many, many organizations start to get really uncomfortable, because though we’ve gotten used to our people using emails and phones to communicate between the company and the world, we haven’t quite made our peace with the public and fast-moving nature of the social web. The unpredictability of that scares us, just like when we wondered if our teams would use their email accounts to do all kinds of damage to our businesses.
So, many organizations turn to mechanisms that are intended to limit, caveat or otherwise failsafe their team member’s communications on social sites. Governance is a very important thing, and it’s something we encourage and help lots of companies build into their social business strategies.
But there are two overarching tactics that many organizations, however well-intended, misunderstand, often detaching them from the strategy because they seem rather cut-and-dried. But they’re critical to think about beyond their superficial appearances if you want to set your teams up for success.
One: Disclaimers allow the company to disclaim the employee much more so than the reverse.
The whole point of saying “these posts are my own” isn’t to protect individuals from their own poor judgment or missteps so much as it helps a company disavow an individual’s tweets or statements and distance the comments from being considered “official” on behalf of a company or organization. It’s a failsafe for the company, not for the person.
While this item may reassure the legal team to an extent when it’s checked off the list, the reality is that whether you officially support or condemn an individual’s statements and behavior, their association with your brand is likely to reflect on you somehow. It’s just the way things work. (Ask yourself when and where “they weren’t speaking on our behalf” is really effective in distancing an employee or group member’s behavior from their organization).
So the question this creates is really twofold: 1) If you’re the organization requiring your employees to separate themselves personally from their professional tweets, why? 2) If you’re the employee who is pretty insistent on making sure you separate yourself from your employer’s presence and brand, why?
At first blush, this looks like a risk management issue, and on the surface it very well can be (especially for regulated industries, who need to walk deliberately and carefully into the realm of brand-supported social media participation). In fact, good governance of social programs is actually essential to their long-term scalability and success. But in reality, these sorts of things are more of a reflection of the culture of an organization than they are the processes and procedures that individual people follow.
It’s crucial to realize the tone and precedent your social media policies and guidelines are setting for your employees’ participation in social initiatives. Most policies and guidelines are created to try and prevent the almighty Social Media Crisis or provide some leverage if and when it happens, and the intent stops there. Rarely are policies and guidelines created in the spirit of enabling individuals to participate on an informed and trusted basis, which makes all the difference in the world.
Individuals have individual judgment. In addition, the exponential networks and connections of your individual employees are infinitely more diverse and powerful than most branded accounts will ever be. It’s to a company’s advantage to not only understand that, but carefully weigh and balance the need for the organization to realistically protect itself with the open and individualistic nature of social media communities.
it’s just one reason why hiring people that you can trust and empowering them to represent your brand with good judgment is so, so critical. You just can’t write good judgment into a policy.
Two: The company and the employee association is either incredibly strong, or incredibly distant. You can’t have the best of both worlds.
If you want your employees to participate on behalf of the company in social media, you have to empower them to do so. However, if you want them to do so voluntarily rather than because you compel them to, you have to allow them to use their discretion about what they post, when, where, and to whom.
If you demand that everyone tweet about a conference at which your VP is speaking at a certain time (or within a certain window, even), you can’t very well also expect them to declare that their posts are their own in their profile. Because they aren’t. You’re putting their participation outside of their control, and therefore, not only are their posts no longer their own, you’re giving things up in the process.
First, you’re giving up the impression that your team’s posts are genuine and motivated by a strong, independent association with your culture and activities. If all of your team members curiously post the same thing at the same time, worded the same way? People do notice, and it’s fairly obvious that it’s a coordinated, deliberate effort. Like it or not, that detracts a little bit from the impression that your teams like their work so much or believe in your efforts enough that they’re posting it on their own, and with their own flavor.
Secondly, if you’re asking your employees to distance themselves from your brand for the purposes of “protecting” your brand, you’re likely to get exactly that — distance from your brand. People that are passionate about their work and their company are proud to be associated with the company, and often cherish the opportunity to represent it, to share their perspective on it, to be an individual and personable representative of what could be little more than a logo to the general public. But they don’t want to be told what and when to post unless they can relate that to their own company experiences and perspective at the same time.
Moreover, if someone is compelled to post items that benefit the company but they’re heavily restricted from posting things that benefit them or, better yet, are relatively agnostic when it comes to your brand (in other words, posts about their personal life, interests, or creative thinking around their professional role), you’re setting yourself up for indifference at best and mutiny at worst.
An empowered brand representative can be your biggest asset. Someone who doesn’t feel so empowered? If they’re not a risk (let’s face it, they’re still participating online on their own time on their own accounts), they’re at least apathetic. And that doesn’t help anyone either.
In both of these cases, the question is one of equilibrium.
You must decide – as an organization and as an individual team leader – what spirit you intend to convey with the participation of your employees in social media.
If your intention is for them to be simply mechanical amplification vehicles for a very carefully crafted marketing message, that can work. You’ll likely see some results in terms of absolute reach and volume of short-term message resonance. You will sacrifice a degree of credibility on behalf of your individual representatives and personality and genuineness on behalf of your brand in favor of a consistent, safe(-r) message. You will also likely sacrifice culturally, since your employees will realize they’re part of a marketing machine, not someone who is entrusted to help build and shape a brand.
If your intention is for employees to become individual voices for your organization and unique representatives of your company’s values, personality and diversity, that can work too. You’ll likely see results in terms of trust and affinity for your brand as well as better identification of your advocates, both internal and external. You will sacrifice a certain amount of stability and potential consistency of message in favor of communications that are more unique and individual. You’ll also sacrifice some predictability around outcomes and need to rely on strong education and culture initiatives to guide your teams and hone their own sense of good judgment.
The bottom line: governance and guidance is important. But it’s a means to more scalable social media, not the end.
We’ve said many times here — and will continue to — that social business transformation is far more cultural than it is operational. Getting your employees involved is no different, and your policies and guidelines need to consider not just what you don’t want to happen, but instead what values, vision and intent you want your teams’ social media participation to convey.