Mar 05, 2018 / in Comms Best Practices / by Bruce Kennedy

Employees are a largely untapped resource for social media amplification. This is a point of view perpetuated by many content pieces and reinforced by research like the Edelman Trust Barometer, which estimates that content shared by employees receives eight times the engagement of content shared on brand channels.

The problem with this point of view is that it is a simplification of a somewhat complicated dynamic. While data may support a rich opportunity for employee amplification on social media, there is also a significant hurdle to that opportunity: employees are fearful that employers will negatively perceive their social media creation and consumption. In fact, more than one-third of employees express distrust for their employer. The source of this incongruent data? The Edelman Trust Barometer.

Activating employees on social media is not as simple as catalyzing a latent resource. In all likelihood, there is an abundance of apprehension to overcome to earn the opportunity for employee advocacy on social media. And even then, employers must set reasonable expectations based on what platforms employees use, how they use them and the type of advocacy and amplification that you expect.

What I want to do in this piece is talk through 10 ways that you can empower your employees to be advocates for you on social media, to enable genuine and straightforward ways for your employees to share your messaging, and develop reasonable expectations of the audience that you’ll reach and the type and frequency of amplification that you can expect. The general public trusts your employees far more than they believe any other facet of your organization, so taking the time to foster employee advocacy could be an essential aspect of your social outreach. But the odds are good that it is not going to be easy.

1. Be Clear, Consistent, And Supportive in Your Social Media Policy 

If you Google “employee social media,” you will see a lot of advice about social media policies. Author Jesse Bauman recently wrote a fascinating piece comparing the social media policies of a few large corporations. If you read the policies from a corporate perspective, these policies seem very reasonable. “Consult HR with further questions,” and “protect yourself,” may be perfect phrases for risk mitigation, but they don’t engender assurance for an employee that the company cares about their voice or advocacy. What employees hear is “advocate for the company on social media, despite that it is inconvenient and could potentially harm your career.” It is as if we expect polished PR-style communication from employees, which is often perceived as disingenuous to the public on social platforms.

Let’s be truthful: most incidents that writers dub “social media fails” are blown out of proportion. For nearly all cases that you’ll see, a corresponding revenue loss for a singular social faux pas is never cited (although often you’ll read that an employee was fired for their mistake). What employees may glean from “social media fails” that they read about on the internet is that their employment may be jeopardized if they make an honest mistake, so what is the benefit to them?

The way that you corporately demonstrate clarity and consistency is by publishing a strong social media policy. The caveat to an effective policy is that it seeks to reassure and clarify for your employees, rather than for PR and marketers to assuage management with legalese (if this is truly necessary, do you indeed have “buy-in?”). 

The most vital thing that you need to communicate to your employees in a social media policy is what Miles and Mangold aptly call a “demonstration of partnership.”

Bernie Borges of Vengreso asserts that employees often come into a company in a non-marketing role and may not understand how their social media can help the company. They may even feel apprehensive about the intersection of their personal lives and their work lives. Borges writes that the way to enable these employees to advocate for you on social media is with:

  • Understandable guidelines.
  • Evident management buy-in.
  • Training

All of these can be communicated through a social media policy and follow-through with training. Writing for Business News Daily, Shannon Gausepohl asserts that an enabling social media policy creates guidelines and not “prescriptive policies.” It allows for flexibility and supports employee expression, two aspects of social media use that are supportive of regular social media use.

A final thought about social media policies from the perspective comes from Jayson DeMers, writing for Entrepreneur, who argues that there are compelling reasons to encourage employee social media use, even if it doesn’t directly benefit your voice on these platforms. Among these are that employees tend to be better informed, have a (low-cost) escape from the work environment, and that they can express themselves in a way that they may not be able to in a work context. Let’s explore that a little deeper …

2. Understand The Egocentricity of Social Media

Humans are inherently egocentric. One of the most prominent places that we exhibit this egocentricity is on social media platforms. Writing for Psychology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne asserts that we post egocentric content on social media platforms that can be easily misinterpreted by other people.

Krauss Whitbourne also writes that we are often sensitive to an “imaginary audience,” defined as the way that we imagine other people will react to us. This is an especially compelling insight coupled with Stephen Wolfram’s research stating that most Facebook networks consist of a few nodes of people with age and background commonalities.  

As an employer/PR pro/marketer, what these insights mean to you:

  • Sharing on social media is all about the person sharing. This should be a fundamental insight when trying to win employee influence. WIIFM (what’s in it for me) is paramount for employers to be able to answer about their employee advocates.
  • Because there is egocentricity (and potential misinterpretation) involved in social media, you need to make messaging opportunities clear and easy to share.
  • Because of our sensitivity to how “imaginary audiences” will react to content, you cannot expect an employee to share or amplify something that they perceive wouldn’t put them in high esteem with their peer audience. This also impacts the frequency of amplification/sharing that you can expect from employee advocates.
  • Because social media audiences are very similar in taste and age, a good rule of thumb for segmentation (if you don’t have a more precise way to gauge this) is that you will reach audiences similar to your employee advocates when they share or post about your company.

There is a lot for you to unpack, but the basic idea is that employee motivation to post on social media is very specific and personal. There are multiple sensitivities that you have to accommodate when you ask an employee to advocate for your company on social media. That said, if you do the work to make it safe for employees to advocate for you, they will genuinely influence a similar peer group. 

3. Don’t Stop With a Social Media Policy — Train Your Employees

“Employers can be held liable for actions their employees take within the course and scope of employment. If your employee posts false statements or rumors about a competitor or co-worker on Facebook, you might be exposed to potential defamation claims.” — excerpted from the Business Owner’s Handbook, The Hartford

Quotes like the one above are the reasons that legalese is prominently featured in some social media policies. But consider this thought experiment: if there is an explicit prohibition of objectionable social posting in a social media policy, does that absolve a company of defamatory remarks if an employee acts contrary to the policy? I am no legal expert, but I would guess that defamation or is a company’s responsibility regardless of social media policy. Legalese is counterproductive to employee trust and unnecessary if you train your employees to understand what right looks like on social.

Think of your social media policy as your WIIFM document, where you demonstrate support and commitment for appropriate social media use in the workplace, and communicate how employees can support the company with their social media amplification. You have a lot of apprehensions to overcome. Training is your follow-up to this document, where you can demonstrate your commitment to social media use, and model transparency by having a dialogue with them about how they should act when using social media in an advocacy role.

Although most businesses may opt to do training in-house, Glassdoor suggests using an outside consultant to lead your social media training. The advantages of this make a lot of sense: often a social media expert has more enthusiasm and a better understanding of the nuances of different social platforms. They can deliver a WIIFM that contextually may make more sense to employees than you can.

If you can get buy-in with your social media policy, training is where you can help your employee advocates to better align their messaging with what you want them to share.

4. Train Your Employees Where They Are (And Don’t be Upset if it is Not Facebook)

I have a 39-year-old friend who I pegged as a Facebook or Instagram user based on her age and background. As I learned more about her, she shared that she shares social content exclusively on Snapchat. If her employer wanted to encourage her to be a social advocate, they might make the same assumptions that I did and wonder why they aren’t getting the Instagram amplification that they were hoping for.

Similarly, I went to a local conference, and at the outset, they encouraged the audience to share pictures and stories on Twitter with an organization-specific hashtag. My Twitter followers probably aren’t paying attention to me at all (statistically-speaking), but in the low likelihood that they are most wouldn’t find any context or relevance if I were to Tweet from that (very local) conference. In my estimation, my Facebook fans (many of whom are local) would be much more likely to be able to contextualize and even be curious and want to learn more about the conference.

The big idea is that there are many different social platforms and myriad reasons that people use each. You’ve likely got a localized population of employees that express specific social preferences, and despite data (like the Pew research below) your potential audience through employee advocacy is the network that they have wherever they have it. You may be able to persuade a Snapchat networker to share something on Facebook, but your message will impact like the sound of one hand clapping.

Pew Research: Which Social Media Platforms Are Most Popular



5. Make Sharing Content OVER-THE-TOP, RIDICULOUSLY Easy.

So, your social media policy built trust, your training helped your employee advocates to understand how their activities can reflect positively or poorly on the company. You have insight into why your employee advocates are sharing content, who they are sharing it with, and you want to activate their networks (wherever they are). Now comes the fun part: there are lots of creative ways that you can enable sharing for your employee advocates. While you are setting up these systems keep this rule in mind — employees must be able to share your content as frictionlessly as possible. Think about it, you overcome reticence, compel your employees to use their owned media to advocate for your company, and then their enthusiasm gets crushed having to figure out how to share your Instagram photo to their Twitter. NO! You are going to make it mind-numbingly easy to share that content on their network of choice. If not because it is written here, but perhaps because the MIT Sloan School of Management recommends it.

Besides simple sharing buttons (which almost every platform has and can be embedded on most sites), here are a few best practices:

  • Glassdoor recommends creating content with sharability in mind. They suggest sharing job openings and corporate announcements via social media or through a vehicle like an email with social sharing enabled. The corporate statements may not be super popular, but job opportunities allow your employee advocates to be a resource to their network and (hopefully) to provide you with some great new employee advocates.
  • Glassdoor also mentions starting a wiki with positive press mentions, awards, news and shareable text (you might consider sharing photos as well, something that Maersk Line has been particularly skillful at).
  • Social Media Examiner columnist Ann Smarty also recommends establishing a central repository of content. She recommends using Slack to do this because you can use its permissions feature to segment content to share.
  • Smarty also recommends DrumUp as a helpful sharing tool if you do a lot of content marketing (this tool creates one-click social sharing from RSS feeds).
  • Writing for Buffer, CEO of 15Five, David Hassell recommends Trello as a collaborative tool to post content and ideas for social sharing.
  • Be sure to tell your employees which social platforms your company posts most frequently to and encourage employees to follow you on these. One-click sharing (shared posts, Retweets, et cetera) are a straightforward way to gain amplification with minimal effort.

Writing for Fast Company, Ryan Holmes suggests that the standard that you aspire to for advocate sharing is Amazon’s “1-click shopping.” You want to make sharing as easy as humanly possible. Einstein said that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” which is basically to say that the more natural something is to do, the more likely it is to happen.

6. Reward Your Employees For Being Advocates (Within Reason)

Altruistic promotion for a benevolent employer may not be the incentive that answers the WIIFM for your employees. There is evidence that explicit reward systems or gamified incentives may increase employee advocacy for short-term campaigns. Note: you might want to avoid long-term or repeated incentivization like this may create a Hedonic adaptation effect, where employees come to expect escalating external motivators for the desired behavior. 

At least in the short term, here are some expert recommendations on how you can provide external motivation for social media amplification/promotion by your employee advocates:

There is not a lot of hard data on the effectiveness of particular incentives towards employee engagement, but anecdotally there is a lot of evidence to support this form of external motivation. 

7. Promote Employee Content

If you study people who are using social media effectively, one tactic that many people and more important accounts use is to retweet or share something that a smaller account post. Below is a screenshot of singer Demi Lovato’s Twitter demonstrating this:

Demi Lovato Twitter.png

One way to show gratitude or acknowledgment for employee advocacy is to share (retweet, repost, share) social content that your employee advocates share to their networks.

There’s also an added (perhaps a bit self-serving) benefit: people trust employees far more than they believe PR, marketing or corporate leaders. In fact, MIT’s Sloane School of Management asserts that people have little expectation of brand engagement with their employer. Retweeting or sharing an employee post is tantamount to sharing an endorsement from a person with more (perceived) credibility than you.

8. Create Opportunities to Showcase Employees

A common tactic for more prominent blogs is to have guest contributors from time to time. It’s common to ask the contributors to share their published work on their social channels. And they WANT to.

We have a natural tendency to want to be acknowledged and affirmed for the things that we do (you may have noticed this). You can leverage the desire for acknowledgment in unique ways such as incorporating employee contributions to your content marketing (h/t to marketer Zellie Friedman), or even some “employee of the month” or recognition award that allows you to publish something favorable about the employee. Your employee will want to share this. Their friends will want to share this. Employee content is a low-cost way to generate additional enthusiasm and goodwill for employee advocacy.

9. Have Reasonable Expectations (i.e., MORE May Not be BETTER)

Consider this thought experiment: You’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or . You have a friend who exclusively posts about their work, or about a multi-level marketing program, or overposts about their kids or their personal life. You probably have someone in mind. Now think about how much credibility that you perceive that person having.

This is the conundrum for your employees. They are always thinking about their invisible audiences, how they will be perceived by their peers, and whether they will be judged credible and authentic on social media. There is a lot that goes into the decision to be an employee advocate. Ryan Holmes touches on this point quite eloquently, recommending that employee advocates are used “sparingly.” He points out that trust is an essential driver of interaction on social media, and you want your employees to be perceived as genuine and authentic by their audience.

You don’t want your employees to overshare. It kills their credibility with the audience that you want them to reach and to resonate with. A reasonable goal to set is to foster a small amount of advocacy relative to social media activities that reinforce the authenticity of the individual.

10. Be Genuine

Shannon Gausepohl writes that “employees need to be allowed to speak in their own voice if you want genuine, positive engagement (on social media).” This is the endstate that you get by effectively communicating a “demonstration of partnership” in your social media policy, and following up with practical training.

When maintaining your employee advocacy program, businesses and leadership need to demonstrate authenticity consistent with your partnership. From a PR perspective or a “legalese” perspective we are trained to stay on message, and often this obstinance is perceived as disingenuousness. Being regarded as inauthentic when trying to encourage employees to help promote and amplify your company through earned media is not smart.

People perceive social media as a way to express their genuine selves. If you want to co-opt their social media, you need to be likewise authentic and genuine.

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About Bruce Kennedy

Bruce Kennedy is a social media manager at Cision, where he manages Cision's global brands. Previously, he worked in public relations in tech and entertainment, helping brands from early stage startups to household names like Red Bull, Disney on Ice, Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey, Techweek and more.Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.