Social media can serve as a powerful tool for promoting a consistent brand identity.
Brands emerge from both user-generated and firm-generated content. Firm-generated content includes marketing and communication content developed and controlled by management, but also includes 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 external stakeholders believe that employees’ messages are more authentic than official company communications.
These interactions occur more and more often through social media. An organization’s lack of direct control over these interactions may present risks, especially concerning employees’ disclosure of unsuitable brand messages. For this reason, organizations are paying special attention to the factors that affect employees’ online behaviors.
In particular, companies are looking for strategies that allow them to reduce the risks associated with dangerous online communication behaviors implemented by their employees. Organizations are increasingly adopting social media policies—official documents issued with the purpose of preventing risks. Particular risks to look out for include the violation of ethical norms (making sure communications are transparent and honest,) and damage to the company’s reputation through negative messaging.
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 . Thirty-four percent of the studied companies affirmed that they adopted a social media policy. In 43 percent 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 Fortune 500 companies, most organizations adopt a social media policy focused primarily on risk prevention.
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 these restrictions can easily provoke resistance and cynicism. Conversely, social media policies should focus on suggestions and advice aimed at helping employees recognize and avoid risks and boost their behaviors that strengthen the brand and promote 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 activate employees to become real advocates of the company and its brand through social media.
Ambassador programs that encourage employees to advocate for the brand are becoming more common. A study conducted in 2017 by Jem Consulting in the US showed that more than 80 percent of the companies in the sample adopted programs to encourage employees to support brands (particularly on social media,) and 24 percent of studied companies planned to activate a program within the year.
Even when promoting employee ambassadorship programs, companies should be careful not to adopt a merely top-down approach. Employee ambassadorship programs should be developed in order to preserve the authenticity of employee behaviors, which provide an effective method of reaching external stakeholders. 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 content that will promote and reinforce a consistent brand.
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.