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The Perfect Storm: Employee Advocacy and the Presidential Elections

Ed Terpening
Microphones by American flag

In our 2015 State of Social Business report, we found that Employee Advocacy programs were the least mature in organizations (18%) and yet it was the #1 priority this year (42%) for new pilots and planning. It’s easy to see the catalyst for employee advocacy, mainly, increasing the reach of brands through employee posts in social networks. As social platforms like Facebook lock down their feeds and demand advertising to reach consumers, they are one factor creating demand for emerging employee advocacy programs.

Just as in life, divisive topics in social media have the potential to harm relationships. In the US, the most divisive political periods—now stretching almost two years—are presidential elections. When employees mix their own personal POV along side branded content, it creates an association that could be harmful in two ways: 1) reducing their reach and influence (through defriending, shrinking their network); and 2) harming brand health (through “guilt by association”), Consider the following:

  • Israeli—Palestinian Gaza Conflict. Nicholas John of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that 1% of Jewish-Israeli Facebook users had unfriended or unfollowed someone during the fighting due to posts about the war. Strong social connections, such as family or close friends, were less likely to defriend, while on the other hand, weak connecting ties were an important factor: 66% responded they disconnected from someone they “are not close to”, while only 2% with strong ties defriended.
  • The Refugee Crisis in Germany. A movement in Germany is focused on defriending right-wing political parties that have taken a position against refugee settlement there. An app shares which friends have “liked” this party as grounds for unfriending.
  • Pew Internet Research. In a Pew 2012 survey, 75% of social network users said their friends post at least some content related to politics. The survey found that 18% of social network users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone based on political posts.   This 18% figure is close to the 16.1% Gaza conflict numbers, which is surprising, as you’d think war is more divisive than US politics. As with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem research, weak connection ties were a strong indicator of action (defriending).

Minimize Risk by Controlling and Monitoring Divisive Associations

While you can’t limit your employee’s political expression on their personal social network profiles or time, you do have control of how your brand is connected to their social personas. Listening for unwanted associations should be part of your social monitoring program and apply to each of these situations:

  1. Loose Connection (No logo/branding). If an employee is not certified for advocacy, and doesn't use their company's logo, but simply identifies in their social network profile their employer name with a disclaimer (e.g., “the views expressed are my alone, etc.”) you have some cover, but not much.   Here’s one way of handling this: monitor for posts that connect your brand to hot political topics. When you find employee posts that could be damaging, alert HR. Arrange in advance a process with HR to help them coach employees and understand how their posts could impact the company, just as wearing a company nametag while engaged in inappropriate activity outside of work could be detrimental.
  2. Slight Connection (Subtle branding or brand association). Employees who use your brand or logo in their personal profile or who post branded messages frequently (perhaps through an official advocacy program) should be advised to avoid divisive posts as a condition for use of your logo, since use implies endorsement.  A good practice is to have certification training in place to build PR-like skills among those employees that may be amplifying your posts, but who are less cognizant of the risks. If you’re using a tool to provide employees a feed of content to amplify (such as Trapit or Dynamic Signal), provide practical examples of posts (including political) that should be avoided.
  3. Tight Connection (Official spokespersons, fully branded profiles). These are dedicated social network profiles created for the purpose of representing the brand by building relationships between the employee and prospects or customers. Best practice is to have strong certification training in place. Many employers have the employee agree to a code of conduct policy that makes it clear associating brand with divisive topics isn’t permitted.

Have a Risk Plan

As with any risk in social media, have a risk assessment in place that, at a minimum 1) names the risk (i.e., political posts associated with our brand); 2) identifies the likelihood of the risk occurring (e.g., consider what percentage of your employee base advocates actively) 3) estimates the range of harm to the brand; and finally, 4) lists controls—especially monitoring—to track each risk and create a closed loop between the risk plan and actual outcome.  

More Resources

Two of our reports may help you devise a plan for this coming storm (both are free downloads):

In the end, arming your employee base with advocacy tools can do a lot of good, but it can also harm both your brand and their own reach and influence.