Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Emily Eldridge, Senior Vice President of Pure.

It’s tempting to think that employees’ online discussions about your company should be curbed.  Most company policies in the modern workplace exist to protect us from lawsuits – and to ostensibly protect employees from themselves.  While it’s understandable to want control over our corporate image, this fear dimishes our employees’ ability to communicate.  A stronger approach is to empower our staff to be brand advocates.

Advocate for Your Employees

Companies should decide whether their employees are advocates or people to censor.  If you help your employees understand what’s confidential and why, they will be able to make wise choices themselves.  True opportunity lies in giving them something to talk about, so they don’t feel constricted – just directed.

As a company, if you are at all worried about proprietary information or your reputation, you should have an online reputation management strategy in place.  Within that, all mentions of the company and its essential keywords should be tracked and analyzed to ensure that corporate communication is monitored and updated where necessary.

Hiatt type 2010 handcuffs. Circa 1990s

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From the time we are old enough to exercise free will, hearing “don’t” instinctively makes us want to try what’s off-limits.  While we mature and learn from others, this instinct never entirely goes away.  For an organization’s employees, the brand is part of their identity.  This is who they get out of bed to work for every day, and this is who provides compensation in return, keeping food on the table.  They’re passionate about that brand.  As such, when a company says, “Don’t talk about us,” it is detrimental toward the morale and the feelings of inclusivity within the corporate family.  It can also lead to further issues, including making the employee question whether or not the company is honest with its employees or values their participation.

In addition to how the employee feels, think about this scenario.  Your employee attends an industry meeting in which a peer says, “Heard about ___, such a shame.  What happened there?”  If the employee is not included in communications and does not keep track of every mention of the company, he will have no clue what the person is talking about.  In minor cases, this can be laughed off.  But imagine how much more organized the company would look if every time the company was mentioned in such a setting, the employee would at least be familiar enough to say, “It was unfortunate, but we are making progress with A, B and C.”  Knowledge is power.

Worst-Case Scenario

In the worst cases, employees create separate accounts to distance their personal and professional lives.  Pretending to be something he isn’t for the sake of your company means that he either shouldn’t be working there (i.e., his personality doesn’t fit your culture), or that he’s a bad person (i.e., he’s a criminal and freely chronicling that online).  Each person’s online presence should be a reflection of his life. Sure, you’ll emphasize different subject matter depending on the audience, just as you emphasized your awesome professors to your mom – and your parties to your friends – when you were in college.

If employees set up two accounts, it’s likely that one won’t include real names.  That makes it much more difficult for you to track and rectify miscommunications.  Maintaining separate accounts is not the answer; awareness and filtering should be all employees really need.

Get Your Employees to Advocate for You

It’s important to define advocacy.  You’ll have some employees who will be base-level advocates, which means you’ll provide them with basic guidelines and information on “things to talk about.”  They probably won’t mention the company much, if at all, in their day-to-day social media activity, but at least they know what they should talk about.

Then you’ll have what I call “advocates,” those people who want to actively participate in discussing brand-oriented things online.  You’ll also have “super advocates,” who will be able to champion specific causes, do research, and really engage, creating community around a topic related to your business objectives.  These are the people you will invest heavy strategy in.

If your corporation doesn’t have a current policy, scour the web.  Find out which people within the company are already proactively talking.  You may be able to identify super advocates this way.  You should also recruit people by simply asking, “How do you feel about talking about our company online?”  For those who indicate they will rarely talk about the company, put them at the base level.  Those who say they’re interested, but would only occasionally post, are advocates.  People who are excited and ready to get started should be deemed super advocates.

You have three groups of people; now you’ll engage in segmentation.  Everyone should receive something, giving them the option to post about the company and equipping them with the right material.  Advocates and super advocates should receive additional information, as well as suggestions on circles in which discussion on the topic would be appropriate.

Give the best brand advocates a subject to speak on over time; this can differ from person to person.  Notify them when important corporate announcements are going to be made, and give them instructions on how they can assist in getting the word out.  Even better, give them in-house communication responsibilities relevant to the subject they’ve been assigned.  This will ensure that they are doing their due diligence on the subject matter, and it ensures that other people within the organization are aware of important information.  It’s critical to keep your internal team as informed as your key media contacts or PR agency.

While it’s easy to reject the idea of employees as the face of your organization, it’s also dangerous.  The people you entrust with your success in the office are the same people you should entrust with your reputation online.  Empower them to talk about you, and they’ll only have good things to say.

Emily Eldridge is Senior Vice President of Pure, a membership-driven resource network for marketing agencies, and co-founder of The Agency Post. As SVP, Emily’s job is to extend member agencies’ capabilities and capacity by bringing together valuable services, products and information to create internal and client-related strategic solutions.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog and signature Explore events. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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  • http://www.facebook.com/angela.hausman Angela Hausman

    Great advice.  Too often firms are afraid to let anyone near their social media and create policies that forbid employees from using social media — some even control what employees can say in their personal social networks.  

    I agree that there are some dangers, but, with appropriate guidance and policies, your employees can really expand the reach of your message, which is the goal of social media marketing.  Here’s my take on how to use employees effectively as part of your social media marketing strategy - http://www.hausmanmarketingletter.com/warning-social-media-marketing-risks

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