In the world of social media, everyone has a brand. How individuals communicate on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other online platforms define their personal brand. And when you hire them, that brand becomes part of your corporate identity.
"HR leadership needs to understand that employees don't check their brand at the door," says Jason Averbook, CEO and co-founder of human resources at Minneapolis-based consulting firm Knowledge Infusion. "It's always with them."
And while many companies still try to control the messages employees put out, leaders such as Averbook take advantage of their most vocal employees by turning them into brand ambassadors.
Averbook points to one of his most successful HR consultants, Wes Wu, whom he hired away from Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson & Co.) five years ago. Wu has been the author of SystematicHR, a popular HR Tech blog, since 2005, but while working for Towers Perrin he was required to write anonymously because they didn't want the blog associated with their brand.
When he came to Knowledge Fusion, Averbook encouraged Wu to reveal himself as the blog's author and to make it clear who he worked for. Linking Wu and the company to the blog brought attention to them both, Averbook says. "We've had many customers ask specifically to work with Wu because of that blog."
However, there are risks around letting employees speak on behalf of the company.
Consider the Entenmann's employee who tweeted "Who's #notguilty about eating all the tasty treats they want?!" on the day Casey Anthony was found not guilty of killing her daughter. The employee of the baked-goods company claimed it was an honest mistake, but many consumers saw it as a crude attempt to take advantage of the trending #notguilty hashtag.
Or there's the employee at New Media Strategies, a social media agency representing Chrysler Group, who tweeted: "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f****** drive." That employee was fired, and the agency lost the contract.
Such disasters can be avoided when companies train employees on how to communicate appropriately online as a representative of the company.
This is especially important for employees who aren't speaking directly for the brand, says Hutch Carpenter, vice president of products for Spigit, a social innovation company in Pleasanton, California. If a person is hired to maintain a company's Facebook page or to craft their marketing message, the company can be fairly specific about what they should and shouldn't say, he says. "But employees as brand ambassadors are wild and uncontrolled."
To leverage their credibility without crushing their voice, HR should set boundaries for what employees are empowered to say and share, what's off-limits, and who owns content and contacts they create as employees— even if they leave the company? (See "Special Report on Social Media: You Can't Take Your Online Contacts With You ... or Can You?")
Many companies offer social media training programs that include guidelines for writing posts, discussing new products and handling negative comments or questions about the brand. Others include directions on how to be better brand advocates by joining online discussions, sharing links about relevant issues and writing blogs about industry topics.
"Being a brand ambassador isn't just about promoting the company, it's about participating in the conversation," Carpenter says. "When employees demonstrate expertise via social media, that expertise becomes linked to the corporate brand."
Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.