This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.
In the current context, companies no longer have the primacy of communication when it comes to their brands. Actually, social media are arenas where more and more conversations about brands occur without the direct control of companies’ Corporate Communication and Marketing offices. Some of these conversations occur between employees and stakeholders. As stakeholders believe that employees’ communication behaviors are more authentic than official company communications, the messages shared by employees during these interactions are crucial for their organizations.
For these reasons, employees’ proactive communication behaviors supporting the brand have a growing strategic importance in the digital arena.
Broadly speaking, employee proactive communication refers to employee behaviors that convey messages consistent with brand values during interactions with external stakeholders. These behaviors are extra-role discretionary actions that cannot be prescribed, because employees would refuse to implement them or perform them in an unauthentic way. Instead, they can be supported through internal branding processes that help build brands from an inside-out logic.
Therefore, companies pay increasing attention to the factors that affect employee behaviors without attempting to control the authentic interactions between front lines and external stakeholders through prescriptions and prohibitions. In fact, employee enablement strategies are proving to be more effective. Among these strategies, companies are starting to experiment with policies aimed at activating employees and making them real advocates of the company through employee ambassadorship programs.
A study by Jem Consulting (2017) in the United States found that more than 80% of the companies in their sample have adopted programs that encourage employees to support brands, especially on social media. Their research also suggested that 24% of the companies were planning to activate one of these programs within the year.
Regarding Italy, the usefulness of such programs has been explored through some successful experiences. A first example is the case of Cromology Italia, a company operating in the sector of production and sale of decorative paints. With the project Cromology Voices, the Italian branch of the company wants to make its employees active on LinkedIn and support them in sharing content and professional experiences. The goal is to strengthen the company’s reputation among professional interlocutors and to increase employee engagement. Participation in the project is voluntary and ambassadors are supported with training activities that help them understand how to independently develop content without the company’s prior approval.
In the short period between May 2019, when the project started, and July 2019, 15% of the company’s employees joined the initiative. In a few months, this led to an 8.5% growth in the followers of the company LinkedIn page. Furthermore, the qualitative analysis of the posts published by employee ambassadors on their personal LinkedIn accounts showed a positive contribution in terms of the company’s reputation.
The second case features Whirlpool with (W)influencer, a global employee ambassadorship project designed in line with the mission of gaining the trust of stakeholders and creating demand for Whirlpool products in the digital world. In particular, the (W) influencer project wants to maximize the presence of employees on social media, particularly on LinkedIn. Their goal is to encourage employees to be authentic company ambassadors, and to educate them on how to update and manage personal social accounts. Since March 2019, Whirlpool EMEA runs the project leveraging on training and support initiatives for program participants. Even in the case of Whirlpool EMEA, relevant results were collected in a few months, including: 12,000 users for WHR360, the company’s global social platform that provide employees with content ready to be shared on their social media accounts; 2,000 shares on personal social media accounts through WHR360; and 5,000 shares of content published on the Whirlpool Corporation LinkedIn page.
These two examples show that there is interest among companies operating in Italy for employee ambassadorship strategies. Nevertheless, they need to be considered as best practices that are probably starting a new trend. A research project titled “The state of the art of employee communication in Italian companies”, run by the Center for Employee Relations and Communication (CERC) at IULM University, surveyed a convenience sample of 143 Italian companies and explored the involvement of employees in external communication activities as brand ambassadors. The results showed that there is a potential in this field that should be developed. On a scale from 1 to 5, the sample obtained an average value of 2.66 when it comes to employees that develop content under the CorpCom’s supervision, a value of 2.44 when it comes to employees enrolled as ambassadors in communication campaigns, and a score of 2.41 when it comes to employees invited to endorse CorpCom contents.
In conclusion, the role of employees in the brand-building processes is increasingly crucial in the era of social media and digital conversations. Companies should focus on this relevant issue and foster these brand-building behaviors among employees.
Alessandra Mazzei is Director of the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication at IULM University of Milan where she is also Coordinator of the Bachelor Program in Corporate Communication and Public Relations; Vice Director of the Department of Business BLECB “Carlo A. Ricciardi”; and Director of the Master program in Intercultural Communication. She is the Chair of the Geert Hofstede Consortium.