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Beyond Engagement: Making the Case for Employee Advocacy

Throwaway remarks often lead to fascinating conversations. This one ticked all the boxes.
“It's why I get so annoyed when people talk about ‘employee advocacy’ programs when what they really mean is trying to get all staff to be an army of mini Marketing Mes...”
I have to thank Judy Gombita, (Social) Public Relations and Communication Management Strategist and Co-content Editor with global blog PR Conversations, for this comment on a (mostly) unrelated article on the Polaris blog.
As you might expect, it sparked an animated debate, from which it’s evident that there is clear daylight between us on the subject – but I don’t see that as a bad thing. More importantly from my perspective, I found myself testing many of my own beliefs on employee advocacy in particular, and internal communications in general.
I can report that my belief system survived the rigors of self-examination largely intact, although some of the detail required fine-tuning. I’m sharing my thinking with the intention of extending the debate to a wider audience.
Firstly, What Is Employee Advocacy?
I haven’t offered a hard-and-fast definition for “employee advocacy” in any of my earlier columns; I’ve focused more on describing the environment in which advocacy flourishes, outlining the benefits it can deliver and explaining the pitfalls that leadership teams encounter en route.
Why? Because it’s a gradual outcome. Although I place it in the business-tool category, it’s not an activity or process that you turn on and off at will.
I like this definition offered by Kevin Ruck, author of Exploring Internal Communication and co-founder of the UK-based PR Academy, commenting on a March 2014 article on PR Conversations. It should, he suggests, mean “what organisations (sic) do to put employees first in every way, including keeping them informed about things that they want to know about and giving them a genuine say in what goes on.”
 This, he says, “is what will lead naturally to employees posting genuinely felt positive comments on external social media.”
This corresponds closely with my experience. Organizations where people speak out on behalf of their employers – whether on social media or simply by word-of-mouth – are those that treat people as individuals, telling them as a matter of course about things that affect their employment and allowing them a say in shaping their workplaces.
Advocacy results when leaders create the right environment, encourage people to participate and provide them with the means to do so. The “means” may be as little as a well-crafted social-media policy coupled with appropriate training or as much as a full-blown content-sharing hub. Being prescriptive isn’t helpful – it usually has the opposite effect to that intended.
… and How Does It Manifest Itself?
The “traditional” objective of an advocacy program is to encourage employees to take to social media and share business-related content with their personal networks – an outcome that I’ve described in previous articles. It’s here though, that my debate with Judy caused me to think hardest – on three counts. It won’t surprise regular readers that these are authenticity, content and voice, in no particular order.
I wrote recently about both authenticity and content, so I don’t plan to revisit this area of my thinking. Suffice to say that it’s not easy to craft authentic content with the sole intention of making it available for people to share. To use my favorite example, if I utilize my personal social-media networks largely to indulge my love of mountain biking, I’m hardly likely to be interested in sharing content on (say) commercial fire-protection systems.
Voice is another matter. The business benefit of encouraging people to share using their personal networks is well-documented – there’s a twenty-to-one advantage in reach when an individual shares something compared with a brand sharing it to the same number of followers (1).
Yet I have to agree, at least in part, with those that decry this approach. Here’s why …
Voice and the Influence of Environment
The business environment and the advocacy use-case play a massive part in determining the appropriate voice. Consumer-facing companies may offer employees plenty of content that lends itself to sharing via personal networks. Conversely, a professional-services firm promoting a subject-matter expert may consider using a brand-owned account to convey the message more authentically.
In a recent article from Marketing Sherpa, Maria Lopez Fernandez interviews Lisa Monarski, Senior Manager of Employer Brand at Deloitte, who explains Deloitte’s use of a corporate Twitter account to promote the company as an employer of choice. @LifeAtDeloitte is an employee-managed account, established with the aim of answering the question “What’s it really like to work at Deloitte?”
Monarski reports that it’s had a “very positive effect” on the brand, driving significant growth in followers from colleges, universities and career centers. Such is its popularity internally that there’s a six-week waiting list for guest tweeters; it certainly scores with employees.
It’s here, then, that my opinion has shifted a little. I’m more open to the advantages of brand-owned channels in employee advocacy, although I’m conscious of the reduced reach that this entails. Whichever way you choose to go, success is still dependent on doing the right things from the get-go and sticking with them. Employee advocacy may still be young, but it’s becoming increasingly effective as social channels become the norm in business.
Where Do You Stand on the Advocacy Spectrum?
Whatever your point of view on this contentious topic, don’t hold back. Maybe you believe employee advocacy belongs in the “mini Marketing Me” arena? Tell us what organizations should be doing to avoid ending up there; we’d love to hear from you.
Beyond Engagement is an exclusive Social Media Today column published every other Thursday.

Register here to take part in the first annual Employee Advocacy Summit in Atlanta this September. You'll hear straight talk from real practitioners at leading brands who've developed and scaled successful Employee Advocacy programs. Bring your team and find out what's really involved. From strategy and planning, legal and compliance, education and training to performance measurement and how quantify ROI. 
As an added plus, we've lined up a panel of Employee Advocates who have participated in such programs. They'll give you the answers to the most commonly asked question: "What's in it for me?" by sharing their views on the many benefits they've reaped by participating in an Employee Advocacy program on behalf of their company.
No matter the size of your business, you will take away proven approaches from the pros and leave this knowledge packed event with a full road map on how to mobilize and empower employees to advocate for your brand. Confirm your spot for this first time event right now!
Image credits:
Column logo by Marie Otsuka

Join The Conversation

  • greykite's picture
    Jul 31 Posted 2 years ago greykite

    Judy Gombita pointed out that I omitted to acknowledge her as the source of the Marketing Sherpa article referenced in this piece - which I'm happy to do. Thanks Judy.

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