This blog is presented by the Organizational Communication Research Center.

Employees can be powerful voices on behalf of organizations. Whether it’s on social media or face-to-face, employees may humanize firms and help advance crucial relationships between firms and their various stakeholders.

With industry experts having long argued that organizations should leverage their employees as advocates, research is now exploring how this happens.

In a co-authored study last year, I found that as a precursor to getting employees to talk positively about firms, they need to first focus on helping employees feel a sense of attachment to the organization. (Formally, organizational commitment mediates the relationship between internal communication and employee advocacy intentions.)

A strong employee-organization relationship is thus key to motivating employees to spread positive information about a firm.

In a second study from 2018, results showed that brand managers walk a fine between giving guidance on what’s acceptable for employees to post and letting employee conversations about companies happen organically.

Since the publication of the second study, I’ve been seeking examples of successful employee social media management programs. One example can be found in my community.

Finding Your Social Wizards
The Fargo Park District maintains 2,100 acres of land in our city along the Red River on North Dakota’s eastern edge.

When I say “Fargo” you probably think of the movie and Netflix series of the same name and our brutally cold winters. Our local parks help make winters tolerable and our summers even more enjoyable.

Last April, the Fargo Park District launched a program to engage with a group of 14 employees who volunteered to be the district’s “social media wizards.”

These employees were provided a Twitter handle, Twitter banner image, and tips on how to represent the district and the district’s mission.

“We wanted it to sound fun, and something they get to do, rather than something they have to do,” said Katie McCormick, the district’s marketing and communications manager.

I need to emphasize that McCormick was not included in my study on brand managers. I met McCormick well after the study was accepted for publication, and I interviewed practitioners from another city. Yet several points from the research resonate with the district’s approach.

In line with my findings, park district employees are instructed on areas to avoid: Namely stands on political issues and personal opinions on topics that are not relevant to the district.

My research also showed that community events present natural opportunities for employees to engage with external audiences online. Sharing an event photo or to live-tweeting an event can go a long way in building rapport with key audiences.

In Fargo, this is put to action as marketing sends gentle reminders to these employees on upcoming events. Training sessions help address questions employees may have about what to share.

Speaking from the employee’s perspective McCormick said, “When you have something you’re really excited about, you want people to know about it.”

These 14 parks employees have been told that to participate in the program, messaging should be in their own voice and tweets are subject to potential scrutiny from the marketing department. This expectation has been clear from the onset, with marketing also having access to these employees’ Twitter passwords as a last-resort safeguard.

McCormick reports that no issues have arisen in this respect.

Keeping Up The Pace
Certainly, social media engagement with employees is not always easy.

McCormick’s team has found it somewhat challenging to keep employees in this program consistently active on Twitter. That’s where reminder emails have helped and also where the program may get tweaked in the future.

Yet a quick scan of posts from individuals such as the parks district events specialist  and a golf course superintendent shows how the district contributes to the Fargo community. It’s the behind the scenes work that may not matter to all city residents all of the time but that demonstrates how the organization is a visible contributor to life here tweet by tweet.

Over the last year there have been several occasions where a tweet from a program employee has resulted in positive local news coverage—a de facto media pitch that McCormick’s team may not have even planned. It’s clear these employees are trusted.

Programs like this can be time-consuming to launch and manage. And it may be awkward to remind employees that they have to give up a certain part of their personal voice to stay within brand guidelines.

Yet the payoff in terms of reputation management—as this group is learning— can be invaluable.

The key is to make an initial investment in employees who want to be engaged online. Do not force it, but embrace those natural opportunities when they arise.

Justin A. Walden, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Communication and Public Relations at North Dakota State University. He may be reached at justin.walden@ndsu.edu and @justwalden.

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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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