Walden, Justin (2018). Guiding the conversation: A study of PR practitioner expectations for nonnominated employees’ social media use. Corporate Communications- An International Journal, 23(3), 423-437.

This study examined the delicate line that strategic communicators must walk when engaging with their organizations’ frontline employees online. Although practitioners and scholars have long suggested that employees can be valuable organizational advocates, there has been little research about how this support is actually cultivated. To address this gap, this study investigated how strategic communicators viewed their role in guiding employees’ posts about work on their personal social networking accounts and the ways in which firms can and should ideally interact with employees online. Findings indicated that in addition to setting corporate policy, PR practitioners engage in three main activities. This includes serving as a reactive-technical resource when employees have questions on social media functions and policy; supporting employees in various online/offline communities; and responding to the incidental monitoring of employees’ social media posts.

In-depth interviews were conducted with 24 corporate communicators from the Midwestern United States in fall of 2015; there were an equal number of managers and non-managers. Participants worked in a diverse range of industries, including healthcare, entertainment, higher education, and manufacturing.

Key Findings:

  • Practitioners are keenly aware of the difficulty of pushing employees too hard to post favorably about firms and working too aggressively to silence negative employee posts. They prefer “organic” and “authentic” employees posts because they humanize the brand.
  • Although there were few reported instances of problems, the risk of confusion about organizations’ social media policies and the threat of damaging posts about organizations by employees is constant.
  • Because of their expertise and training, practitioners believe it is important to assist employees when they have questions about what is acceptable to post and how various social media platforms work. Often, this is assistance is offered when employees bring questions to them.
  • Practitioners find natural opportunities for engagement with employees through their involvement in multiple communities. This includes helping employees become thought leaders in their respective online communities of peers and using organizations’ social media accounts to share favorable posts by employees from in-person community events.
  • Although environmental scanning is a central PR function, employees are not targeted for social media surveillance. This study uses the term “incidental monitoring” to describe how practitioners rely on peers to inform them of problematic posts by other employees and general online search terms, rather than specifically monitoring employees.

Implications for Practice
Based on this study’s findings, a “best practice” approach to engaging with employees online involves clearly communicating corporate guidelines on social media use, holding periodic training sessions with employees, and practitioners recognizing that there may be wide gaps between experienced social media users and employees who are new to social media. Moreover, practitioners expect employees to avoid criticizing their organizations and peers, to not pre-empt news announcements online, and to help them scan for reputation-harming posts by all individuals. Yet even when these proactive steps are taken, practitioners are forced to live with a certain loss of control over the corporate message among employees. As one practitioner said, “what [employees] say on social is the same thing they are going to say in the grocery store to a cashier.” PR practitioners should let all employees know that they are resources when it comes to determining what should and should not be shared online. Simply developing a corporate social media policy is not enough. The management of risk and the cultivation of support from employees should be an ongoing process that involves distilling and reinforcing guidelines to make expectations for employees’ social media use clearly understood.

Article Location: The full article is available at https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/CCIJ-06-2017-0057?af=R

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