Employee activists represent ‘huge opportunity’ for employers

Just one-third of employers encourage social stewardship: Survey
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2014

One out of every five of your employees is likely an activist. And another 43 per cent of Canadian workers have the potential to become activists, according to a survey by PR firm Weber Shandwick.

Employers that don’t tap into this pool of enthusiasm could be missing out on a lot of potential.

These activists make their engagement visible — they draw visibility to their workplace, defend their employers from criticism and act as advocates, both online and off. And they’re not quite the same as brand ambassadors, said Madeline Long-Duke, vice-president of employee engagement at Weber Shandwick in Toronto.

“Brand ambassadors generally connote more of a marketing focus whereas (with) employee activists, it’s more all-encompassing and it’s also more about the employee than the company and the brand,” she said. “(They) really rally around what the company does, what the mission and values of the company is, and they feel tied to it.”

Activists have always existed, it’s just easier to see them now thanks to digital and social media, said Long-Duke.

“People are able to articulate better in social forums what it is that ties them to their business and what they do every day,” she said. “When a person really loves what they do for a living, that passion’s going to show through in their social network... What I find really interesting is that they’re more inclined to come to their (employer’s) defence than any other group because of the pride in what they do on a regular day.”

And if one-fifth of the workforce are activists, employers should take note, according to Long-Duke.

“That’s a huge group of people that you have a really great opportunity to build engagement (with) and to leverage for the purpose of helping to promote the business and what you guys are doing that’s great.”

Positive effect

Overall, 50 per cent of the 2,300 employees surveyed (40 per cent of the 125 respondents in Canada) post messages, pictures or videos about their employer often or from time to time. And 33 per cent (26 per cent in Canada) have done so without any encouragement from their employer.

Thirty-nine per cent (27 per cent in Canada) have shared praise or positive comments online about their employer while just 16 per cent (eight per cent in Canada) have shared criticism or negative comments online about their employer.

The effect can be impressive: Employees with socially encouraging employers are significantly more likely to help boost sales (72 per cent) than those without (48 per cent), said respondents. In Canada, 84 per cent of employees with socially encouraging employers have recommended their company’s products or services versus 61 per cent of those without.

However, just 33 per cent of employers (23 per cent in Canada) encourage employees to use social media to share news and information about the organization, found Weber Shandwick.

“We know recruiting the best talent is a strategic priority for many HR people, so if people are searching your company and looking at what’s been said in social media, having those employees speak highly of the organization they work for is only going to help people consider your company as a place they’d like to work,” said Long-Duke.

It’s a huge opportunity if it’s handled appropriately, said Frances Leary, president of online communications company Wired Flare in Halifax.

“Organizations have to have their policies in place and make sure they’re well-communicated to employees, so that employees understand what the guidelines are, what they can and can’t do,” she said.

“If all of those things are well-defined in advance, it’s a fantastic way to promote and increase the company profile.”

Potential downsides

While employers might be concerned about potential downsides — such as negative publicity — they need to get past that. Everyone’s focused on the worst case scenario, said Long-Duke, but just eight per cent of employees in Canada have shared criticism or negative comments.

“There’s a huge opportunity to get more reputational equity out of your social networks through your employees,” she said. “As a culture, we’re very risk-focused... so that tends to mean ‘Let’s not do things, let’s not engage socially, let’s not give tools...’ But the companies that have a great reputation and have a great brand are really empowering their employees to share socially, and that’s helping to fulfill their employee value proposition, and its helping to increase their business.”

But making sure you have a social media policy in place is foundational, said Diana Mulvey, a principal at marketing and communications firm Seeds Consulting in Vancouver.

“It really has to become part of your organization’s structure, not because you want to just regulate everything everyone does but it just takes the guesswork out of it and that allows your employees to understand what they are allowed to do on company time and what kind of messages are OK, so that you’re giving them permission to go ahead with that. Also, it sets some parameters too because you don’t want to give people a green light and then see (the initiative) go really off the rails or in a direction that really doesn’t serve the organization.”

The employers that are successful in this area are the ones that really value employees as part of the team, said Leary.

“They’re a very close-knit group, they’ve got consistent communication from the top down all the way through the ranks of the company so that everyone feels like they’re a part of it,” she said. “On the flipside of this, the risk for a company to implement this type of program in an environment that’s not like that — they can really be opening themselves up for potentially harmful situations.”

And the relationship goes both ways, said Leary.

“Companies have to realize that in entering into this relationship with an employee, not only is the company trusting the employee but the employee is also trusting the company to be part of their social network, which in a lot of ways is very personal, so the trust goes both ways.”

For the most part, people in their 30s and 40s are quite active in this realm, said Leary, because the younger employees “might not have as much invested with the company yet, they might not really understand the company culture.”

Employers should look beyond millennials, even though they’re prolific on social media, said Mulvey.

“There’s a growing segment of other employees who might be really expanding their use of social tools and if they just don’t have tools and shareable content from their employer, then you could be missing that opportunity or you might be just not even paying attention to what they’re already saying — you might be missing the conversations that are already ongoing if you haven’t got systems in place to look at that.”

Tools guide the way

There are a variety of ways employers are encouraging employees to be social stewards, found Weber Shandwick, such as giving them tools and messages to use (see sidebar).

“It’s giving you the message ‘This is our culture, this is our mandate, this is how we work,’ and then that sort of, by osmosis, translates into how they communicate about their brand to their peers and their friends in social media,” said Long-Duke.

“It’s never formulaic, it’s never ‘Put this in front of your computer and use this script and never veer from it’ — it should never be that formulaic because then it’s not authentic.”

In addition to providing usage guidelines on what’s acceptable, employers could, for example, provide the types of comments or posts they’d like to see from employees, said Leary.

“I don’t think it can be like copy and paste, it has to be more organic and more real. The audience is intelligent and if it sounds like it’s duplicated and copied, they’re going to know that.”

SOcial media

How are employers worldwide encouraging employees to act as social stewards?

•Provide readily accessible tools to use in social media (55 per cent).

•Provide messages about the employer to use in social media (50 per cent).

•Provide easy-to-understand guidelines for using social media (42 per cent).

•Ask employees to stay alert to social media postings about the employer (39 per cent).

•Provide training for how to use social media properly (37 per cent).

•Provide access to social media at work (35 per cent).

•Provide one or more social media accounts to use (13 per cent).

Source: Weber Shandwick

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