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Defining Employee Roles for Social Media Participation

I recently came across this post by Lawrence Liu called, Social Media and New Roles For Employees. It is a wonderful post regarding employee roles in social media, the importance of aligning with marketing so that employees understand go-to-market messaging, as well as some thoughts on being translucent as opposed to transparent. This post also ties very nicely in with Jeremiah Owang’s discussion on the five ways companies let employees participate in social media.

Dan Schawbel recently posted a blog entry with the same title and suggested the following social media oriented roles for employees to take on:

  • Messenger: As an employee, you can hold our own viral campaign by tapping your fellow employees for support, enabling them with a sharable message and link, and then empower them to promote. Just like you, they have their own personal brand, with a following of friends that can carry your message to an even larger audience.
  • Spokesperson: Social media has given rise to a world where anyone can become a spokesperson for their company, whether endorsed or not. There may be corporate policies in place that prevent you from being aggressive online, but as long as you are transparent and use common sense, your company should sanction your participation. Typically, employee bloggers have to cite a disclaimer on their blog, stating that “The views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or its clients.” Even though you have a disclaimer, you still have to be a good corporate citizen!
  • Supporter: You don’t have to be in customer service to aid your company. You’re already using social media tools to communicate, so why not respond when you come across a customer or potential customer who is looking for answers? It’s a great opportunity to foster a stronger relationship between you, them and your company.
  • Salesperson: Employees, especially at companies that have reduced salaries due to the poor economy, should strive to find another revenue stream. One way this can be achieved is to actually bring in new business to your company, even if your current role has nothing to do with business development. Employees should describe what they do for their companies on their social networks and blogs, and then reach out to their network of potential buyers. People purchase based on trust and relationships, and since your employees have established this rapport for years, it only makes sense that they can help you close deals.
  • Guardian: Brands, whether corporate, product or personal, are being mentioned online, whether you like it or not. Fortunately for companies, employees are already using these social networks for professional and personal motives. Employees can assist their companies by setting a comprehensive Google alert ( for their company’s name, in addition to their own. They can also perform Twitter searches to view any and all commentary that is taking place about their company.

While I agree with the characterization of these roles, I’d like to emphasize the important roles that Marketing (in particular, Product Management) and HR must play as critical success factors for a company’s social media strategy. Marketing must ensure that employees understand the key messages and positioning for a product or service before the employees start blogging or tweeting about it. Marketing also must provide a clear and consistent escalation path for employees to funnel or redirect questions that they cannot or should not answer directly. HR must provide employees with the appropriate level of social media training and update the Employee Handbook accordingly to reflect the dynamic and widespread nature of online communications in the Web 2.0 era. In the past, only official spokespeople needed communications training, but now, many more employees need similar training because their online presence and activities may be viewed as being representative of the company, regardless of their job titles or disclaimers, or what other (more official) employees might have stated. The ultimate objective for any corporate communication, via social media or other more traditional channels whether internal or external though especially the latter, should be clarity and consistency.

To that end, I strongly advocate the “Translucent” approach to social media over the “Transparent” mindset as described in a leaked internal blog entry from late 2006 by Steven Sinofsky, who is now the President of Microsoft’s Windows Division. In his blog entry, Steven uses the following rationale for being smartly translucent rather than being completely transparent:

The most important thing I believe we owe our shareholders and customers relative to how and what we communicate is that whatever communicate to people be accurate and truthful relative to the work we have going on. This does not mean free from ability to change down the road. It does not mean silence until the very last minute. What it does mean is that we should recognize the potential impact our communications can have on customers, partners, and our industry and we should treat folks with great respect because when we do disclose what we’re working on people pay attention-and they do more than listen as they make plans, spend money, or otherwise want to count on what we have to say. When we have to change our plans, modify what has been said, or retract/restate things we not only look like we don’t have our act together, but we cause real (tangible) pain to customers and partners.

And he goes on to describe what is essentially a Product Management driven communication process:

So our goal as an organization is to be much more thoughtful and considerate with what we disclose. Premature disclosure might make us feel like we were helping. Heck it might even make some customers and partners feel good, and some partners might even understand of the challenges we face in managing our projects. But on the whole it did not make Microsoft a good citizen of the ecosystem and it certainly did not make us good enterprise partners. Being thoughtful and considerate means we will be just as open and just as transparent about roadmaps and plans as we ever were (meaning the contents we disclose) but we are going to work to eliminate the premature disclosure that has low reliability and high error rates—we will have the right materials for enterprise customers, brief industry analysts, and work with partners all with valuable and timely information. Notice that these audiences are our customers and partners and that a non-goal is allowing the news cycle or needs of the press to drive disclosure timing and contents.

Just as we plan the software we will plan to disclose our work. It means that we will develop the messages (so expectations are correctly set), the supporting information (so all the details are there), and the overall communication plan (so we don’t leave anyone out). Product Management owns and drives this. In many ways this is their product deliverable. Just like we don’t want people running to demo a feature hot off a build machine, we don’t want to rush to disclose until we have these plans in place. Our PMG team is dedicated 100% of the time to communicating in a planful way this information to the Microsoft field, customers, partners, and the press. They are not perfect, but like all of us their strive to do their best, learn, and improve each turn of the crank. This is a key point which is that we are trying to be new and improved with respect to disclosure, and one thing we need to do is go out and make sure we set expectations on what new and improved means and how we will be working.

I know many folks think that this type of corporate “clamp down” on disclosure is “old school” and that in the age of corporate transparency we should be open all the time. Corporations are not really transparent. Corporations are translucent. All organizations have things that are visible and things that are not. Saying we want to be transparent overstates what we should or can do practically—we will share our plans in a thoughtful and constructive manner.

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