Social media help to build brands as they support the widespread diffusion of opinions and messages among customers and stakeholders, in a collective process of co-creation of brands.
Actually, brands emerge from both user-generated and firm-generated content. Firm-generated content includes marketing and communication contents developed and controlled by the management but also messages conveyed by employees. In fact, employees have several opportunities to interact with external stakeholders and during these interactions, they spread messages about the brand. These messages are crucial because stakeholders believe that employees’ communication behaviors are more authentic than official company communications.
These interactions occur more and more often through social media and employees can talk about their company and its brands online when they are at work and when they are not working too. Of course, a company cannot have direct control over these interactions and this means that it cannot even control the disclosure of unsuitable brand messages by employees. For this reason, organizations pay increasing attention to the factors that affect online employee behaviors.
In particular, companies are looking for strategies that allow reducing the risks associated with dangerous online communication behaviors implemented by their employees. For this reason, they are increasingly adopting the so-called social media policies: official documents typically issued with the main aim of preventing risks. In particular risks of breaking laws, such as those on property rights; of violating ethical norms, such as those of transparency and honesty; and of damaging the company’s reputation by spreading negative messages.
The study “Employee communication practices and trends: The state of the art of internal communication in Italy”, conducted by the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication (CERC) at IULM University, surveyed a convenience sample of 143 Italian companies and the 34% of them affirmed that they adopted a social media policy. In 43 pecent of cases, this policy was issued by the Corporate communication department. These results show that social media policies are still not a very common tool for Italian companies, but they recognize the relevance of such a tool for coherent corporate communication. According to another study conducted in 2015 by the CERC on 25 companies among Fortune 500, most companies actually adopt a social media policy more focused on risk preventions and prescriptions.
Actually, when developing a social media policy companies should be aware that attempting to govern the online moment of truth between employees and external stakeholders through prescriptions and prohibitions can be useless since they can easily provoke resistance and cynicism. Conversely, social media policies should be focused on suggestions and advice aimed at helping employees to recognize and avoid risks and at the same time aimed at boosting employees’ online communication behaviors that strengthen the brand and the dialogue with stakeholders. In a word, social media policies should follow an “enabling” philosophy that encourages employees to perform online brand-consistent behaviors that are spontaneous, discretionary and convincing.
In this sense, social media policies can become a component of an employee enablement strategy focused on activating employees to become real advocates of the company and its brands on social media.
Today, employee enablement strategies are more and often based also on employee ambassadorship programs. A study conducted by Jem Consulting in the US in 2017 showed that more than 80% of the companies in the sample adopted programs to support employees to support brands, particularly on social media. And 24% would have activated one within the year.
Even when promoting employee ambassadorship programs, companies should be careful not to adopt a merely top-down approach, willing to use employees as amplifiers of corporate messages. Actually, employee ambassadorship programs should be developed in order to preserve the authenticity of employee behaviors, which is so relevant for external stakeholders. In this sense employee ambassadorship programs should favor the free expression of employee voice: employees should be trained in order to develop their digital and social communication skills, so that they are able to share brand-contents from the official company social media accounts and alongside this they are also able to produce their own brand-consistent contents to be posted through their personal social media accounts.
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.