I’ve written a lot about the positive aspects of brand, brand humanization, allowing employees to be brand ambassadors, and to free up their personal brand to evolve just as real people do.
What I haven’t talked about as much is who owns your company’s brand. Does the organization? Do the brand ambassadors? Where do you draw the line, and when?
I’ll tell you a story about a software technology company (one of my clients) which hired a well-known thought leader to be the brand ambassador for one of its product lines. The company allowed the brand ambassador to Tweet and blog under his name, although the product line had an established social media presence on a number of channels – among them Twitter, LinkedIn, and G+.
The result? You guessed it: people interested in the brand started following, and having conversations with, the brand ambassador, who refused to use the brand handle and insisted on using his handle. The company’s product line social media efforts didn’t build a following; everyone was watching the man behind the curtain. In two years of employment (and talks with management which belatedly realized what was happening,) the brand ambassador assured the company this was best practice, followers understood the brand was separate from the ambassador, and all would turn out well.
Shocker alert: the person’s personal brand left the company for greener pastures, and so did the person’s (and the brand’s) thousands of followers. The company scrambled to hire a brand ambassador who understood the need to separate church and state. The new ambassador was hired: a person with a less fragile ego and more commitment to the company. Nevertheless it took over a year to build back a following for the product line’s brand. Kind of a complex situation overall if you dig deeper.
Could this have been avoided? Of course, with a little care, and perhaps a better understanding of human motivation and personal brand.
I believe everyone owns their own personal brand. Companies and leadership must see the value of this concept for a successful social workplace recipe. If a brand ambassador chooses to represent the company and/or its brands, the individual should do so in a transparent way, e.g. set up a separate twitter handle incorporating the person’s name or handle and the brand handle or company name.
An example: @SusieQBrandX, instead of @SusieQ. In this way the company respects the individual’s personal brand while providing a company-blessed channel for the individual to share information about the company, employer brand.
Some people share my sentiments and many do not – I’d love to hear your thoughts – but we’re all working towards the same goal: making it simple for brand ambassadors to represent the company, while ensuring messages are consistent and authentic. It’s important to ensure the line between the company’s brand and the person’s brand is documented and respected. It’s also important to ensure followers of the brand aren’t confused.
Another company I consult with hired a social community manager who also is responsible for social media and employer branding. This individual is very political in the Party sense, so an agreement was reached before employment to protect both the individual’s right to communicate her political thoughts and also support the organization’s point of view. This was accomplished by creating a new handle for the community manager (see the @SusieQBrandX example above) and supporting its launch with a blog. So far, all is well. No lines have been crossed and everyone involved has declared the arrangement a success (so far, so good). Susie still has the freedom to voice her views on her own handle on her own personal brand.
So what are ground rules for ensuring your employees, who are brand ambassadors, can represent the company’s views and still profess their own?
Here are five social ideas for leadership:
1) Create a best practices guideline document for brand ambassadors. This doesn’t have to be as bulky or draconian as most employee handbooks. The goal is to establish do’s and don’ts for employees who choose to represent the company on social media. Have a use case for those who don’t want to dilute their personal brand and another for employees who are willing to co-brand a social media identity.
2) Ensure the social media/brand ambassador guidelines are incorporated in your onboarding process for new employees. Remember: the goal of HR is ‘never surprise anyone’. Be transparent from the beginning, and be consistent in your management of the practices. It’s your brand, after all.
3) Create the post of Chief Listening Officer. (hat tip to Robert Rose of Content Marketing Institute fame) and make sure the CLO has the Twitter handles of all employees who choose to act as ambassadors. Plan B is to have really good scans set up to catch slips in process before they compromise the brand.
4) Don’t be apologetic. If you are the employer it’s your brand, which means it’s IP. Protect is as diligently as you would from hackers or those who might not share your views on IP, brand ownership, etc.
5) Invite your employees to be brand ambassadors. Make them your workplace champions. Provide them with ground rules, message training, and other business supports. But also be vigilant for those who are trying to build their own brands on your clock. There’s a line – make sure you cover this in the Brand Ambassador Guidelines.
Social media is critical to personal or employer brand maintenance. You want to encourage employees to be brand ambassadors while protecting all parties involved. It’s not hard or mean; it’s just putting up guardrails so everyone stays on track.
After all, social media is growing up. It’s time for a few rules to keep it clean and safe for both brands and brand ambassadors. Have big fun with it.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes.com on 8/29/12.