Should employees be encouraged to use their personal accounts on social media networks to talk about their company in order to give it a less formal image and to capitalize on the sympathy factor that can be created by freer, more spontaneous and above all peer-driven messages? In an era of mistrust towards any vertical communication, the word of peers, of equals, often carries more weight and credibility than that of the company’s official representatives. In a hyper-connected world, where in order be visible and make oneself heard, one must know how to make others speak for you, shouldn’t employees be the first section of the community to be mobilized to promote and defend the company’s image? This phenomenon is increasingly known as employee advocacy.
For having largely relied on this new form of communication, the French brand Le Slip Français has just experienced a crisis that shows the limits and risks of employee advocacy. And prompts us to question the right way to use it.
The dangers of confusing private and professional life
To begin with, Le Slip Français gave off the image of a nice start-up developed thanks to an imaginative communication strategy based on two disruptive ideas: firstly, that men’s briefs are not a simple commodity but a valuable product, and secondly, that they can be produced in France under economically viable conditions. Concrete marketing talent has ensured that Le Slip Français has quickly become for men’s underwear what Michel & Augustin was for biscuits a few years ago. Relying primarily on its employees, who are encouraged to praise the merits of the company, promote its pioneering spirit, the pleasure of working there and thus, consequently the brand and its products themselves.
The potential negative consequences of such a strategy became clear on January the 1st of this year, after two employees of Le Slip Français were identified in a video taken at a private party called “Viva Africa!” with racist overtones. The resulting criticism and accusations could have been confined to the employees concerned, but in fact it was Le Slip Français that was held accountable. Its friendly, open-minded and cheerful image was very quickly damaged by Internet users calling for a boycott of the brand’s products. Within a few hours, the Instagram account “Décolonisons-nous” (Lets decolonize!) was visited more than 50,000 times. On Twitter, the video was viewed more than 930,000 times in less than 24 hours. The founder and president of the company reacted immediately, speaking out to express his regret over the happening of the event, denouncing the behavior (“these are not our values”) and announcing the layoff of the two employees as a precautionary measure. He specified that he had brought all employees together to remind them the “values of openness” promoted by his company. He also met with the president of the French association SOS Racisme to discuss with him its participation in the implementation of an internal “awareness program on racism and discrimination”. And thus, succeeded in putting the controversy to rest, demonstrating in passing that he masters the fundamentals of crisis communication as well as those of marketing.
The proper use of employee advocacy
As exposed, employee advocacy has been growing in recent years. Companies see it as an opportunity to get their messages across to their employees and thus to move away from a set up where they are the only communicators. This is an alternative to online advertising, which can sometimes be considered too intrusive. It is no longer the company that interferes in the digital sphere of Internet users: on the contrary, the latter “follow” people whose values are in adequation with their own ones.
This form of communication sends a double signal: in addition to promoting its services or products, the company communicates about itself by demonstrating that its employees are willing to embody it even to their online communities. In this sense, as we have noted, it tends to blur the boundary between professional and private lifes.
Moreover, employee advocacy is a significant lever for attracting and recruiting new talent because it opens up an insider’s view of the company and demonstrates employees’ attachment to it.
Dell, one of the pioneering companies in this area, has succeeded in building a real employee advocacy strategy. To involve all its employees, the company offers training in the use of social networks, at the end of which employees are certified “social media & community professionals”. They are then free to post content involving the brand. They are even encouraged to do so by bonuses awarded to the most active and motivated among them. Today, Dell is considered an attractive company, with a dozen Best Employer awards received around the world.
This communication is clearly based on one principle: empowering employees to speak up
For the practice of employee advocacy to develop within a company, it must not be perceived as coercive by its employees. The company must therefore accept a certain flexibility in the control of its online communication. Start-ups that were born in the digital sphere and feed off of it to exist are certainly more inclined (and probably more able) to do so.
Nevertheless, this flexibility requires a framework, because when employees are given the opportunity to carry a message on behalf of the company, they sometimes have only their free interpretation and personal sensibility to guide them.
The company is thus subject to a paradoxical restriction wherein it must trust its employees, while ensuring that its brand image is not damaged.
Does this mean that employee advocacy should be dispensed with? The answer is no! The risk of this strategy is the risk inherent in the very use of social networks: we cannot control everything that is published, neither by whom, nor in what context… but we cannot refrain from being present on them either, nor from using these now unavoidable vectors of communication.
The solution for developing employee advocacy without having it backfire against the company itself should not be sought in controlling and mastering the activities of employees, but in raising awareness, training and implementing specific programs.
The first step consists in defining the basic principles, shared with all employees. Many companies have thus adopted charters of good practice on social networks in order to set the rules of the game. This concerns not only the positive aspect of employee advocacy, but also the information about the company, its functioning, its possible difficulties and even criticisms that employees may disclose. The organization of digital acculturation workshops has become more and more common: they allow employees to become even more aware of the role they play when they post about the company they work for on social networks.
Beyond this basic action plan, our expertise, acquired by accompanying our clients in this new but growing field, shows that what works best when developing employee advocacy is to set up specific programs, initially limited to a certain number of employees who want to take the initiative on a voluntary basis, with the use of content sharing tools (Socciable, Elevate, etc.) to support employees in their actions.
In concrete terms, the aim is to provide them with quality content, in line with their activity, whether or not they choose to relay, comment, etc. via their own account. Because, contrary to what it is reduced to in most cases, employee advocacy does not simply consist in the fact of showing oneself as working in company X or Y. It is a question of employees being identified as experts on a particular subject, in a particular field, in order to finally enhance the company’s know-how and position it as an expert on subjects that are strategically pertinent for it.
Thus, in order to benefit as effectively as possible from the “spontaneous and autonomous” voice of its employees, and to contain the inherent risks, the company must accept and manage this paradox, which consists in preparing them and also preparing itself accordingly.