Posted: March 7, 2017
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Article SummaryCompanies and government agencies are traditionally very reluctant to let employees speak out on controversies confronting the organization. Yet employees have special credibility in controversies; industrial hygiene employees have special credibility in controversies about risk. After making the case for using employees as external communicators when controversy strikes, this column focuses on two main recommendations. First, employees should speak for themselves, not for management, even though sometimes management won’t like what they say. And second, employees need some help understanding the rudiments of outrage management.

“Brand Ambassadors”
in Reputational Crises:
Using Employees as
External Communicators in
Risk Controversies

This is the 35th in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this website. This one can be found (with a few short cuts and minor copyediting changes) in the March 2017 issue of The Synergist, pp. 26–29.

Over the past several years, the use of employees as “brand ambassadors” has progressed from novel idea to hot new trend to conventional public relations practice.

It’s easy to see why. More and more people, especially young people, get most of their information (product information as well as news) from social media rather than mainstream media. And the most effective social media sources are peers – individuals, not organizations or their official spokespeople. Virtually every organization that has asked the question has found that its employees are more credible than its management. And unless an organization is very small or very popular, its employees collectively boast a lot more social media contacts, followers, and friends than the organization itself.

Googling “employee brand ambassador” this morning netted me hundreds of entries with titles like “Three Steps for Transforming Employees Into Brand Ambassadors,” “Build an Employee Brand Ambassador Program,” “The Best Brand Ambassadors: Yes, They’re Your Employees,” and “How [insert name] Empowers Its Employees to be Brand Ambassadors.”

The advice in these articles is highly consistent. Key points on just about every list include:

  • At least at the start, pick the most enthusiastic employees instead of asking everyone to do it.
  • Use incentives and rewards to motivate participation.
  • Provide lots of content in easy-to-use forms; then let employees pick whatever feels comfortable for them.

But many of the same companies and agencies that now deploy employees as brand ambassadors vis-à-vis organizational “happy news” still have social media policies that discourage or outright forbid employees from commenting on anything controversial. The fear, of course, is that employees will say the wrong thing, thereby exacerbating the controversy, arousing new controversies, provoking lawsuits, etc.

That’s starting to change. Using employees as external communicators in controversy is still a novel idea, not yet a hot new trend and far from conventional public relations practice. But it’s coming. In recent years a smattering of articles – not yet a flood – have appeared with titles like these from 2016:

A role for industrial hygienists

Since many controversies center on health, safety, and especially environmental risk, industrial hygienists will inevitably play a role in efforts to use employees as external communicators in risk controversies.

In fact, industrial hygienists may lead the way. It’s already conventional industrial hygiene practice to involve family members and even neighbors in employee health, wellness, and safety programs. Employees are encouraged to carry workplace risk reduction messages back to family and friends. This creates a “virtuous cycle” (the opposite of a vicious cycle). When employees advocate for risk reduction at home, they’re likelier to take risk reduction more seriously on the job. And their loved ones are likelier to urge them to do so.

Employees have special credibility when controversy arises about some risk that a facility is imposing on its neighbors, or that some neighbors fear the facility might be imposing. Whatever risk external stakeholders are worried about, more often than not it’s a bigger risk inside the facility than outside. And more often than not employees already understand the risk pretty well, thanks to the organization’s industrial hygienists. So employees are in an ideal position to tell their neighbors how serious the risk is or isn’t, what the company does to manage it, and how worried or unworried they are personally.

Of course if their answers are upsetting (“it’s a big deal, the company isn’t managing it right, and I’m terrified I’m gonna die”), employees can exacerbate a risk controversy instead of ameliorating it. And employees have to be careful not to imply that occupational risk somehow means that bystander risk ought to be acceptable. The message shouldn’t be anything like: “I face this risk every day on the job, so you’ve got no reason to worry about it at home.” Instead it needs to be: “I’m familiar with this risk up close and personal, so let me tell you what I’ve learned about it.”

Organizations with a good industrial hygiene program have far more to gain than to lose from using employees as external communicators in risk controversies.

I’m not claiming there’s no downside. Even if the risk is genuinely small and the organization is fully transparent, some employees will speculate aloud that the organization could be withholding secret information that shows the risk is serious. Or they’ll be disaffected for some other reason and will seize on the risk controversy to get even. In mid-controversy you can’t expect a completely message-compliant “employee ambassador” workforce.

Nor do you need one. If most employees are onboard with most of your message, the net effect despite the dissenters will be very much to the good.

Decades of advice

I’ve been giving clients this advice for decades, long before peer-to-peer social media began to supplant top-down mass media. A seminar handout link is to a PDF file I started using in 1995 insists, in italics, that “Employees are a key conduit to the general public.” It adds: “People who hear about a risk controversy often ask a neighbor or a friend who works there what the real scoop is. Employees are ambassadors for better or for worse.” This is a truth that was first driven home to me in 1979, when I covered the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident. Many TMI employees became news sources for reporters; every TMI employee became a news source for family, friends, and neighbors.

In 2005 I pointed out to an Australian mining industry client that just about everybody in a mining town knows a mine employee. When something goes wrong, I wrote, people

pretty much ignore what management is saying. Instead, they ask their neighbor who works there. If the neighbor says “I’m not allowed to talk about it” or “I don’t know anything about it” or “They told me some one-sided bullshit I respect you too much to repeat,” an opportunity has been lost. Briefing employees about negative stories – in a balanced rather than a self-serving way – and empowering them to talk freely with their neighbors is probably the single best way to address controversies in places where the company is a dominant employer.

As I put it in a September 2003 article in The Synergist:

In an external risk controversy, your employees are a key information source for their neighbors. If they share their neighbors’ concern, the concern is confirmed. If they don’t know the first thing about the issue, that’s just as harmful. If they have been properly briefed – with accurate information, not a one-sided gloss – they can be invaluable.”

And in a 2015 website column on social media I advised:

Authorize everyone in your organization, top to bottom, to participate freely in social media conversations about your organization – not as spokespeople but just as themselves, contributing their own knowledge, experience, and opinion. This guarantees the speed, spontaneity, and credibility that social media require and formal organizational responses can’t provide.

I went on for a bit about the desirability and inevitability of this change. But I ended skeptically: “Unfortunately, this era of decentralized social media responsiveness probably won’t come to pass until millennials take over your organization.”

The bottom line: Whatever your organization’s policies, employees are inevitably going to talk to their neighbors and post on their Facebook pages about an ongoing controversy challenging the organization. You can’t squelch it. You can’t harness it either. So unleash it and guide it.

Let employees speak – for themselves

I have never liked the “brand ambassador” label. The main job of an ambassador is to represent the policy positions of the administration. (Just ask Barrack Obama or Donald Trump.) Even when there’s no controversy, employees forfeit most of their credibility if they’re just regurgitating the company line.

When controversy strikes, it’s especially essential for employees to speak for themselves. Their credibility comes from the fact that they’re not ambassadors or advocates or spokespeople for the organization. Of course you hope that they will tell people what they have learned from management, but you accept that they will also tell people about their own experiences and opinions. “Here’s what my company says about this situation. Here’s what I think.”

Freeing employees to speak on their own behalf protects the organization as well. If an employee says something that conflicts with policy, that’s not necessarily a reputational catastrophe. (I concede it does sometimes launch a firestorm of criticism.) Maybe another employee will chime in and rebalance the dialogue. Or a genuine spokesperson can do so – not disputing the employee’s right to his or her own opinion, just explaining how the organization sees the issue. Most people catch on pretty quickly that your organization isn’t a monolith, that the employee’s viewpoint isn’t typical (if it isn’t), and that the employee’s freedom to disagree reflects well on the organization.

Of course your hope is that most of the time what most employees say will be compatible with what the organization is saying. If it’s not, then maybe the organization is trying to spin the story in a way that’s neither true nor salable. Or maybe the organization has done a poor job of briefing its workforce on the controversy. Or maybe the organization has such a poor overall relationship with the workforce that employees won’t say you’re right even when they know you’re right.

These are three key implications – benefits, in my judgment – of unleashing employees as external communicators:

  • You won’t be free to spin the story if employees are free to say what they know.
  • You’ll have to keep employees in the loop so they know how management sees the controversy and why.
  • You can’t expect employees to validate management’s views on the risk controversy if their overall relationship with management is antagonistic.

My recommendation to keep employees in the loop can use a little elaboration. The ideal is to tell the workforce what’s going on just before you go public externally. It’s not wise to tell a roomful of employees anything you don’t want outsiders and the media to know. And it’s not wise to let much time go by between your employee briefing and your public statement. The reason is obvious: Someone is sure to leak what you told them. But this sort of leak problem is trivial compared to the leak problems faced by organizations that don’t tell their employees much about ongoing controversies and forbid them to tell anyone else what they know (or what they guess or imagine). Repressive organizations leak more than open organizations, and the information they leak is far likelier to be inaccurate and hostile.

One seldom-noted advantage of letting employees speak for themselves is grounded in the social science concept of triangulation. In qualitative research, triangulation is the well-accepted strategy of relying on a conclusion only after multiple sources with different viewpoints and different methodologies have come out in pretty much the same place.

It turns out that ordinary people also triangulate when they’re trying to figure out the answer to a thorny question. (Once we think we already know the answer, we stop triangulating and become far more vulnerable to confirmation bias.) We gather information from a wide range of sources – official sources, web sources, friends and neighbors – and we look for commonalities.

If several sources are saying exactly the same thing, obviously they’re working together, and we count them or even discount them as a single source. If several sources are saying roughly but not exactly the same thing, we begin to suspect that might be the truth.

If different sources are saying radically different things, then we have to decide whom to believe – a decision that may be grounded in wishful thinking or animus or ideology or group affiliation or, conceivably, careful assessment of the evidence.

Organizations beset by controversy often subscribe to the crisis communication dictum to “speak with one voice.” I disagree with this dictum on several grounds; triangulation is one of those grounds. The most credible claim is the claim that seems to come in a wide range of similar but not identical variants from a wide range of different sources. So the best answer to the question of who in your organization should be talking to the public is everybody. Focus on keeping your employees well informed, not on keeping them quiet or making them ventriloquist’s dummies.

A single overriding organizational spokesperson with everyone else forced to shut up or parrot the script is bound to backfire. It helps turn the kooks into significant sources. A cacophony of competing spokespeople with radically different stories is also bound to backfire. It conveys chaos. The goal is a symphony of intertwining, compatible but not identical messages from many well-informed sources who are free to speak their minds.

Help employees with outrage management

Although public relations people consider controversies to be a kind of crisis, in my jargon controversies call for outrage management, not crisis communication. The distinction matters. In a real crisis (an explosion, a terrorist attack, an infectious disease outbreak, etc.), the key communication task is to help your audience cope with a serious risk they’re rightly upset about. The key task in outrage management is to help your audience calm down about a comparatively small risk they’re excessively upset about. These are different skill sets.

I don’t expect PR people and their organizations to give up thinking about controversies in terms of “crisis communication.” But I wish they would at least change the term to “reputation crisis communication.”

Calming people down doesn’t mean presenting facts that demonstrate how foolish people are to be so upset about such a tiny risk. Even if the employee and the organization are convinced that the risk is tiny, the employee still needs to listen to why people are upset; echo what they’re saying; empathize with their concerns as reasonable and understandable (not foolish) even if they’re mistaken; acknowledge the ways in which they’re not mistaken; etc.

In fact, the main downside of unleashing employees to speak their minds during risk controversies isn’t that some employees will say things that are hostile to the organization. The main downside is that some employees will say things that are defensive of the organization and hostile to its critics. A criticism that’s at least partly valid may provoke loyal employees into attacking the critic while management is looking for ways to apologize, make it right, and move on. The solution to both downsides is the same: Other employees or management can balance the scales, in this case by saying, “Whoa, she has a point here, we did screw up.”

Still, it will help if employees understand that ameliorating controversy and rebutting critics are different tasks, understand that the organization is hoping for help on the former more than the latter, and understand how to do it.

Only once has a client asked me to help its workforce learn how to respond empathically and respectfully to public criticism. (I’ve also been asked several times to train call center personnel.) In 2013, a Canadian pipeline company inquired about whether I could develop some strategic advice and training modules – not merely pro-pipeline talking points – for its roughly 5,000 employees to use when responding to criticisms of the company that arose all too often in their private lives. The focus wasn’t mostly on asking employees to reach out via social media. Rather, it was on providing guidance to employees who suddenly found themselves under attack about pipeline risks by people they knew. As the client put it to me in a phone call, “How do you deal with your brother-in-law the enviro?”

To its credit, the company understood that there were three tasks here, not one: correcting the factual record as needed; ameliorating the external critics’ outrage; and ameliorating the employees’ own emotional pain. The second task – outrage management – is my special area of expertise. But I don’t underestimate the importance of the third task. Imagine the pain when your child’s best friend tells her, “My mom says I can’t play with you anymore because your dad works for the pipeline company.”

Community relations people prepare professionally to face these three tasks at public meetings. Ordinary employees face them, usually without preparation, at supermarkets and dinner parties. I loved the idea of developing guidelines for an embattled organization to help employees cope with critics, and was disappointed when the work for the pipeline company didn’t materialize.

If employees are already coping with critics at supermarkets and dinner parties, it’s only good sense to give them the preparation they need. And once they’re properly prepared, why not unleash them more broadly to function as external communicators in risk controversies?

Copyright © 2017 by Peter M. Sandman

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