This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center

Employers are becoming increasingly aware that their workers are a powerful and influential source of information when advocating the values of the companies they represent or praising the products and services offered by their organizations.

Not surprisingly, businesses such as Dell, Hewlett Packard, Zappos, Starbucks, and Reebok have encouraged their employees to be active on social media and share the company’s culture and content online. Although some companies have developed successful employee advocacy programs, others have failed and have received criticism. GameStop is an example of the latter. This past November, the video game retailer invited store workers to submit synchronized videos of themselves dancing to the #RedWineChallenge (any dance routine set to the reggae and pop band UB40’s 1983 hit “Red Red Wine”). The winner of the challenge would receive an Echo 8, Echo Auto, $100 Visa gift card, and access to 10 additional work hours during the Black Friday shopping week. The fact that GameStop was giving out shifts as a prize was perceived as exploitative and abusive. After receiving extensive backlash for their idea, the business subsequently took down the offer.

This example highlights that encouraging employee advocacy can lead to adverse outcomes if not managed appropriately. Therefore, an important question is: How should organizations and communication practitioners influence employee advocacy?

A recent study I conducted with Rita Men attempted to find some preliminary answers to that question. In this study, 25 public relations and communications practitioners with internal communication experience were asked to share the communication strategies they consider most effective in encouraging employee advocacy.

The interviewees’ responses were separated into two groups: corporate communication strategies (macro-level) and employee advocacy program management factors (micro-level).

The corporate communication strategies were divided into four categories:

  • Openness and transparency: When organizations encourage openness and transparency, they make sure that employees are informed about recent developments and are knowledgeable and connected to a clear mission and vision.
  • Positivity: In addition to being open and transparent, internal communicators should emphasize the positive things that are taking place within their organizations.
  • Legitimacy and empowerment: Giving employees a voice, listening to their needs, and developing an inclusive environment is a great way to legitimize their concerns. Regarding empowerment, communicators should facilitate the generation of opportunities for employees to drive the experiences they desire in the workplace.
  • Recognition: Internal communicators can play an important role in developing a culture that recognizes employees for their contributions.

In addition to the macro-level corporate communication strategies, the interviewees also addressed the following five employee advocacy management strategies (i.e., factors that are exclusively focused on managing employee advocacy initiatives):

  • Understand business strategy: Communicators need to be focused on the drivers and the objectives that are most important to the organization at a particular point in time. Advocacy programs that succeed tend to be driven by a business need (e.g., increasing the number of applications of qualified candidates).
  • Policies and guidelines: Updating social media policies and guidelines and educating employees on these matters can potentially impact advocacy behaviors. Emphasis needs to be placed on developing guidelines that provide a sense of comfort and safety among employees. Employees will sometimes shy away from advocacy because they don’t know what the policy is or are afraid that they will get in trouble.
  • Facilitation: Organizations need to make sure that they are making it simple for employees to advocate. Providing employees easy-to-use platforms and mechanisms to share content will facilitate the experience.
  • Interesting and meaningful content: Internal communicators should share stories that employees can relate to. In other words, workers should be provided with interesting and inspiring content if they are to advocate on behalf of the organization.
  • Collaboration: Internal communication teams should build synergistic relationships with other departments, such as external communications and human resources, to develop new opportunities for employee advocacy.

Without any doubt, organizational interest toward employee advocacy has substantially increased within the past years. Although this a positive development, businesses need to make sure that they are encouraging these behaviors appropriately and in a manner that will not generate resistance or criticism.

Patrick Thelen, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor of public relations at San Diego State University and the chief research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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