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illustration of sad man in sea of cubicles surrounded by social media likes

Who Speaks for Your Company on Social?

Steve Heisler

illustration of sad man in sea of cubicles surrounded by social media likes

Employees can be your best spokespeople on social media, but requiring them to post raises ethical concerns

Reports of Amazon’s poor workplace conditions have dogged the retail juggernaut. Employees at its warehouses have cited long hours, unfair wages, mandated standing, repetitive stress injuries and—because breaks are allegedly forbidden—urinating into trash cans. Amazon has repeatedly denied these claims, yet its employees continue to assert otherwise. On Prime Day in July, workers in Minneapolis went on strike to protest, as some employees told The Verge, being treated like robots.

Amazon was also accused of employing robots when it tried to mitigate the damage in August. The company had previously designated certain fulfillment center workers—warehouse employees—as “FC ambassadors,” tasked with sharing their experiences on social media to combat misperceptions about Amazon. These employees, with handles such as “Dylan – Amazon FC Ambassador,” were deployed when Twitter once again erupted with criticism. “Everything is fine, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the money I make or the way I am treated at work,” wrote Dylan, while other FC ambassadors contributed equally canned, seemingly disingenuous responses. Twitter users were convinced they were interacting with bots.

The ambassadors themselves insisted on Twitter that they were not paid to blindly endorse Amazon, and a representative from the company told The New York Times that the content of the posts came from personal experience, not company talking points. Even if the accounts aren’t bots, Amazon is still paying $15 an hour for the ambassadors to pounce on social media; it’s unlikely the chosen employees would want to bite the hand that feeds.

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While Amazon’s tactics were questionable, the concept of enlisting employees as brand ambassadors is appealing to companies. “We’ve got roughly 55,000 employees in the U.S. alone, with over 240,000 people globally,” says Reggie Walker, chief commercial officer at PwC. “You could say that gives me 55,000 to over 240,000 marketers, because if I can put stories in their hands and activate their networks and know they can tell our story, I’ve just amplified our message around the world in a way that a lot of organizations can’t.”

The thought of a quarter-million brand representatives not under direct supervision is certainly daunting. If employees can say whatever they want on social media, the brand risks the spread of proprietary information, unsubstantiated rumors and generally negative attitudes. On the other hand, monitoring your employees too closely leads to less employee creativity, according to technology and media veteran S. Kumar, writing for Time. Here’s how to best construct an ethical social media policy that encourages employees to organically join your company on social—without invoking comparisons to Big Brother.

Simplify Your Policy

“The standards and guidelines that our people are all required to review and sign off on are not very long … and not overly complicated,” Walker says. “We learned a long time ago that if you put out a billion standards, people aren’t going to follow [the policy].”

PwC’s social media policy outlines a few simple concepts: Only designated employees are allowed to speak on behalf of the company to the media. Other employees must avoid posting about clients or vendor relationships. New hires learn about this policy on day one, when they begin training at PwC.

“You’ve got to lay out what your non-negotiables are, those things that are fundamentally important,” Walker says. “You’ve got to keep these policies clear, but simple.”

Media agency Spark Foundry further simplifies its social media policy. The company relies on the rules its parent company—Paris-based Publicis Groupe—has put in place. The policy boils down to, “Be careful discussing any proprietary work as related to the agency or its clients,” says Spark CMO Scott Hess.

Hess adds that the straightforward policy affords employees the chance to ease up and express themselves on social media. “Publicis Media fully supports our employees being their authentic selves on social media and other online platforms, provided they follow that guideline,” he says.

Encourage Employees to Post About Themselves

The only times Spark Foundry encourages the content of its employees’ social posts—if those employees decide to post at all—are during social campaigns centered around holidays or seasons. For Mother’s Day and Father’s Day 2018, they shared the hashtags #TheSparkofMotherlyLove and #TheSparkofFatherhood, then asked employees to post photos of their parents to social media using the designated hashtag. A small committee voted on who shared the best photos and awarded prizes.

“We view social media as a window into our people, our culture and our work,” Hess says. “We believe that the Spark Foundry brand is in large part the sum of our people—how they live and show up in the world.”

Maintain Flexibility

No company can construct a perfect social media policy on its first try, particularly when the landscape can seismically shift at a moment’s notice. To better serve the changing whims of its employees and the social sphere, PwC maintains an open culture of communication.

“If there’s something they don’t think that they can do, or they have concerns about [the policy], we absolutely encourage that dialogue,” Walker says. “There have been people who have raised points in the past, and we take them into consideration.”

Monitor Sparingly

While PwC does comb social media for mentions of the company, it doesn’t find the need to keep tabs on every employee post. PwC doesn’t have the resources to watch over hundreds of thousands of employees, and Walker feels it’s a fool’s errand.

“That’s not who we are,” he says. “We all have to recognize that social media is an everyday part of our lives. You can only control so much.”

Instead, both Walker and Hess advocate placing their faith in employees to self-regulate.

“Our approach to social media is based in trust,” Hess says. “We encourage our people to highlight their own unique personalities [and perspectives] when posting about their experiences at the agency, and we trust that they will do this in a way that supports and is beneficial to the agency. And so far, I’m happy to say we haven’t run into any problems by taking this approach; in fact, we’ve found that when our people are empowered to be themselves, they are truly our best spokespeople. That’s what I would recommend: Start with trust and build your policy from there.”

Steve Heisler is staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.