Employee Activists Are An Under-Used Communications Tool

In 2009, a group of employees at a  Fortune 500 company came together to create a blog about their firm. Monsanto According to Monsanto was a response to The World According to Monsanto, a film which took a highly critical look at the agriculture company. In an initial post, the bloggers explained why they set up the site and why they were taking the time to write on behalf of their employer.

People here are passionate about what we do and feel strongly that Monsanto and our efforts contribute a lot to agriculture and to the world in general. That’s often hard to get across in typical corporate communications and we’re hoping that this blog will offer a more personal view of Monsanto.

Monsanto According to Monsanto represents both the opportunity that engaged and loyal employees represent to their firms — and the degree to which companies are missing that opportunity. Monsanto isn’t the only large company with a difficult public image that could benefit from a real and human face. But it is the only one whose employees have chosen to organize in order to represent the firm publicly.

According to a study by PR firm Weber Shadwick, many employees are willing to speak up on behalf of their employers. Some are already doing so, although in a way that’s disorganized and personal rather than planned and ordered — but many employees are also being publicly critical of the firms they work for.

The report, entitled Employee Activism: Seizing The Opportunity In Employee Activism, surveyed 2,300 employees aged between 18 and 65 who work at least 30 hours each week for an organization with more than 500 employees. Respondents were first asked about their attitudes towards their places of work then expressed their degree of “activism” by marking a list of social behaviors in which they engaged.

According to the report, the respondents generally thought little of their companies’ internal communications. Only one in four believed that their company did a good job of keeping them informed. Fewer than three in ten said that they are being listened to and kept in the loop. Only 17 percent rated highly communications from senior management. And that was even though they reported receiving on average 4.4 different kinds of communications from their employers.

Employees Feel Unappreciated — And They Have Facebook

An average of 30 percent of respondents said that they were “deeply engaged” with their companies, a definition which covers a variety of attitudes including enthusiasm, a sense of appreciation, caring about the company’s success and reputation, and pride and satisfaction in their job. But more than one in five employees said that they felt strongly that they were putting more effort than necessary into their job but that their effort was unappreciated.

That leaves a large pool of employees who are both disaffected with the company and unaffected by the attempts of corporate communicators to keep them motivated.

If that disaffection could stay within the company, the problem would only be one of morale. But the survey also looked at employees’ use of social media, and here the figures were worrying.

  • 88% of employees use at least one social media site for personal communications.
  • 50% post messages, pictures or videos in social media about their employers often or from time-to-time.
  • 33% post messages, pictures or videos about their employers in social media often or from time-to-time without any encouragement from their employers.
  • 16% have shared criticism or negative comments online about their employers.
  • 14% have posted something about their employers in social media that they wish they hadn’t.

Not only are internal communications failing to reach employees, but social media enables those disaffected employees to reach the public. It’s no surprise then that only a third of businesses actively encourage their staff to use social media to share news and information about the company.

Despite the potential for employees to publicly criticize their companies on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, those employers that do promote social media use may well be on to something. While 16 percent of employees have been critical of their companies in public, 39 percent have shared praise or positive comments online.

Weber Shadwick divided those “employee activists” — staff who discuss or promote the company in public — into six types:

  • “ProActivists” conduct the most positive actions and are never negative. They’re highly social and make up 21 percent of employees.
  • “PreActivists” can sometimes be negative and are less social than ProActivists. They make up 26 percent of employees.
  • “HyperActivists” tend to work in social media and have a great deal of influence. About half have posted something about the company which they’ve later regretted. About 7 percent of employees are HyperActivists.
  • “ReActivists” are also highly social. They’re usually positive but can be critical. They make up 11 percent of employees.
  • “Detractors” are entirely negative but they’re also not social so the damage is contained offline. About 13 percent of employees are Detractors.
  • “InActives” are least likely to put effort into their jobs or to be able to explain what their company stands for. They’re difficult to motivate and make up 22 percent of employees.

When a sizeable portion of employees are already posting and tweeting about their workplaces, both positively and negatively, companies need to get ahead of them, recommends Weber Shadwick. The report offers a “playbook” for activating employees that consists of “accelerating” the activism of ProActivists; “igniting” the activism of PreActivists and HyperActives; negating the negatives for ReActivists and Detractors; communicating “in ways that matter”; and “customizing” strategies and tactics for each segment.”

As employee activists gain numbers and strength, organizations need to be prepared to facilitate these employees,” says Kate Bullinger, Co-Lead, Global Employee Engagement and Change Management. “Internal communications needs to move beyond being company news briefs to being more content-rich. Company storytelling is not just for external media anymore, it’s a way employees are informed and have something meaningful to say about their employers.”

That sounds like the kind of business talk that you’d expect to hear from corporate coaches. For companies wondering how to get their employees to evangelize on social media, a more important question is what exactly they need to do. More than half of companies that drive employee activism offer tools for employees to use and half actually provide the messages. More than 40 percent provide guidelines and 37 percent offer training in the correct use of social media.

Create A Social Media Policy That Matches Your Company

The training and the guidelines they offer though, varies considerably. Much has been made of the success of Zappos, an Amazon-owned retail company with a reputation for customer service and which provides much lauded guidelines for employees to follow. Some social media experts, though, have argued that that’s not a policy that other companies should rush to follow:

For many important companies all it will take is one Twitter-induced SEC violation, a leak of vital competitive information, or a national defense breach, and the hammer will come down on the use of social media forever. Policies are usually made to deal with the lowest common denominator.

This is where the challenge for companies lies — and why reports about “ProActivists” and “PreActivists” offer limited help. A company that sells shoes will get into little trouble if one of its employees says something they shouldn’t; if a media company, on the other hand, were to give free reign to its employees, the result could well be praise for an Ayatollah.

Zappos, for example, encourages its staff to include the company name in their personal profiles. Intel encourages its employees to post but tells them to stick to their area of expertise — and to use common sense. Best Buy has a clear policy with a list of dos and don’ts that tells employees what they must disclose and what they are not allowed to reveal.

Weber Shadwick’s report makes clear that companies have an urgent need to create guidelines that govern social media use — and reveals that 60 percent of firms are still ignoring that need. But producing policies that match the company and tools that allow different kinds of employees to represent their firm won’t be easy. Unless, of course, the employees start their own blog and do it themselves.


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