Having a culture of error and setting a management with role models are essential for engaging employees into a culture of online sharing, says Kerstin Hoffmann.
We spoke with Kerstin Hoffmann, one of Germany’s top public relations and digital communications and marketing experts, bloggers and authors. Hoffmann has a PhD in philosophy and teaches at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. Her German „PR-Doktor“ blog is one of Germany’s most read blogs on PR and communications.
Kerstin had a lot to say about employees acting as brand ambassadors, crisis communication and building a strong culture of internal communication where employees have room to err and learn from their mistakes.
What are the fears that companies face in terms of employees using social media for company purposes?
I mainly observe two kinds of fear in companies. On the one hand, company owners and managers fear that employees who present themselves as brand ambassadors are much more visible for competing companies, which may lead to offers they can’t (or won’t) refuse.
The other fear concerns employees who are afraid of exposing themselves in a way that could endanger their position. Also, any bad development, any shitstorm that is associated with their employer, might backfire on those who are known to be working there. So, why should they take a stand as long as they don’t see the benefits for them?
Can employees help companies overcome PR crises or negative press by spreading positive word of mouth online?
Definitely. Credibility and personal relationships determine how news and information are received, also in times of crises. But it is important that we stop thinking merely in terms of one-way (and one-to-many) communication, as most companies still do. Social media in general, and particularly brand ambassadorship, are not mainly about spreading the word and employees acting as mouthpieces for the company’s messages. It is much more about multiple dialogue.
Rather than just talking, brand ambassadors should listen. They should be present when people talk about their company and relevant topics. They should join the conversation, rather than always try to lead it or be the only one talking. The better a person is connected to other people, the higher they are held in regard, and the more likely they will also be listened to in times of crises.
Even more important is the aspect of an early warning system. Someone with good personal connections in relevant communities will learn at a very early stage if anything happens that may endanger a company or have negative consequences for their image.
What is the role of company culture in creating a strong brand online?
Company culture is crucial. Apart from the fact that in these times of great transparency, it is hard to produce an image that does not comply with internal reality – there has to be a supportive atmosphere. Otherwise, employees will not feel encouraged to actively involve themselves as brand ambassadors, which is part of creating a strong brand online. Without a so-called error culture, where everybody is allowed to learn from mistakes, hardly anyone will risk making mistakes, and most employees will prefer to fly below the radar.
Is it important for C-level and management to be active on social media?
Absolutely. There are several aspects to this. Firstly, C-level and management have to act as role models, otherwise it will be much harder to motivate anybody else to dedicate a part of their social media activities to the company. Secondly, only when the C-level and management actively express their support and appreciation for social media activities and for employees’ efforts as brand ambassadors will there be readiness to be part of a larger picture.
A company where managers stay invisible and out of reach will steer into medial irrelevance. The most exposed persons in a company must be tangible and addressable online. It goes without saying that this requires a very good and elaborate communications strategy, which includes professional support, and not only from the leading figures. No chairman or CEO will be able to handle all that communication effort by themselves. At the same time, everything they show and say must happen in alignment with the whole strategy.
Do you think brands can become more human by supporting their employees to represent the company as individuals?
A company always consists of individuals, of humans. No company has ever done business with another company. It is always humans who interact on behalf of a company. We take that for granted in physical encounters, but there is still potential in applying these principles to digital communication and community building. Brand loyalty is much harder to be maintained these days. A company that consists of visible, recognizable faces is much more likely to be remembered and sought out again and again.
How can employees be encouraged to become brand ambassadors?
By having role models from the management level. By active support and an error culture. When there is a value-based integrated communication strategy where brand ambassadors are acknowledged as important and constituent elements. This requires internal communication that leads to everyone recognizing the benefits for themselves, as well as the greater good to which they contribute.