Why Brands Should Pass the Mic to Their Star Employees

Breaking the executive/employee caste system and democratizing thought leadership

Every brand wants to be a thought leader. The democratization of media — first through blogs, followed by social media — seemed to open the possibility that any brand could, provided they had something to say. But somewhere between ideation and execution, things got muddled.

At a time when digital media was offering everyone a microphone, brands responded with a muzzle. Instead reaping the benefits of the full intellectual firepower of their employees, brands created a caste system that privileged the voices of executives over the ideas of employees, and introduced strict rules determining who is allowed to speak and in what context.

In today’s content marketing landscape, Executive Equity and Employee Engagement programs are the manifestation of that caste system. They afford executives the full support of the brand and the biggest megaphone to speak — even when executives don’t have much compelling to say — while limiting the speech of employees in an attempt to turn them into an on-message megaphone for the brand.

Left out of this mix are the sub C-Suite star employees. The engineer who wants to usher in female technical talent. The rising designer with ideas for adapting the brand’s visual identity to new channels and audiences. The marketing manager who wants to blow up how brands think about social media. These are mid-level employees who are hungry, have new ideas, and who are trying to build their careers. Yet they are not authorized to speak on behalf of the brand, and are not supported by the brand in their own thought leadership activities.

As a result, the most creative output from this group is unrealized by the brand — locked up in personal Github repositories, Behance portfolios, personal blogs and other side hustles. Until brands are able to rethink their approach to thought leadership to fully include this group, all but the most exceptional brands will continue to struggle to produce anything resembling leadership of thought.

How Did We Get Here?

Let’s take a minute to ground ourselves in exactly what I mean when I refer to Executive Equity and Digital Employee Engagement and understand how this caste system developed.

Executive Equity is the practice of elevating the voices of high-level executives within the company to position them as leaders in their fields more broadly. These activities are a subset of thought leadership, which is itself a subset of a thoughtful content marketing strategy.

Ten to fifteen years ago, this work consisted of (ghost)writing and pitching opinion pieces to a limited number of newspapers, magazines and the relevant trade publications. After the growth and professionalization of the blogosphere, the list of websites to pitch expanded dramatically, and executives signed on to become regular contributors at sites like Huffington Post, LinkedIn, and Forbes.

Unfortunately, there was no equivalent increase in the number of executives with something genuinely useful to say — nor were executives incentivized to take risks or say anything interesting. Content was canned and bland; tactical and on-message rather than extemporaneous or deeply felt. Corporate leaders shied away from truly engaging with the commenters or with their peers, whose thoughts were often locked away in another stand-along opinion piece on a competing platform.

With metrics like “media mentions” and “potential impressions” used to judge impact, these programs were easy to justify as successful. Executive Equity work ate up corporate communications budgets, limiting what brands could commit to support other efforts and the upper rungs of this class system became calcified.

On the other end of the spectrum was Digital Employee Engagement, which is rooted in the growth of visual media as the primary currency of the social web. Over the past five years, first photos, then videos and now live video have overtaken our social feeds. Algorithmic curation of timelines jumped from Facebook to other networks, and organizations found themselves in the position of needing to become content studios and news publishers to compete for the attention of audiences. At the same time, brands faced rising customer care issues when posting to these channels, and were ever fearful of employees going rogue.

It was from these conflicting imperatives that Digital Employee Engagement programs were born. They include the deployment of specialized content management and CRM platforms that allows companies to woof highly vetted content — especially visual social content — to employees. Sharing of the content gets tracked through an analytics platform that also gamifies the process for employees, creating incentives to participate. It’s a glorified form of slacktivism for brand advertising. They allow brands to curtail some of downsides of employee social media use, while maximizing the value of their employees in extending the brand’s footprint online.

Brands love these programs. They allow brands to present a conversational face without needing to engage in actual conversation. As an employee, and someone who is occasionally witness to pitching this to brands, I don’t get it. There is quantifiable value for the brand, but very little value for the employee aside from an approving nod from management for publicly demonstrating their commitment to the company.

When coupled with parallel efforts to monitor what employees are saying on HR sites like Glassdoor, and social monitoring for crises precipitated by employees going rogue, Employee Engagement programs solidify the status of everyday employees in the lower caste — encouraged to share something (highly vetted), but empowered to say nothing.

The Alternative: Passing the Mic, Not the Muzzle

Is there a middle ground that might be more effective at engaging those mid-career professionals who have more to say than a pre-approved tweet? Can brands break the caste system and leverage the genuine insights into the organization’s business these employees can provide?

It’s a tough nut to crack. Google famously tried to do just this with its engineering teams by allowing them dedicate 20% of their time to side projects. The program birthed Gmail and AdSense, two of Google’s biggest products, but was eventually mothballed because Larry Page felt too much time was being spent away from achieving Google’s core product and business objectives. That’s a valid concern — but I’m not advocating necessarily for the use of company time. Rather, I’m suggesting that similar activity could be supported by the company in other ways that ultimately benefit both the brand and the employee.

What would that alternative look like? Any solution would need to meet certain criteria in order to appeal to both the employee and the brand.

Employee Benefits and Requirements

  • Exploration and Learning: The ability to explore topics related to their core expertise and relate back to brand, maintaining a public identity that is both attached to and separate from the brand.
  • Peer Visibility and (Potential) Virality: The ability to interact directly with others in their field, and the potential for their ideas to spread widely. This work cannot be siloed or shelved internally by the brand.
  • Ownership and Credit: Employees retain ownership of all content created and credit for the ideas they have. Content is not locked-up on corporate blogs that go unread or discontinued when the internal sponsor loses interest.
  • Potential Support from the Brand: The promise of material support from the company — in the form of organic and paid promotion — if brand requirements are met.
  • Business Impact and Career Growth: The potential for their ideas to be incorporated into the business, driving business impact and career growth.

Brand Benefits and Requirements

  • Right of First Refusal: Brands get first dibs on ideas generated in partnership that could further the company’s mission allowing them to realize value from the relationship — especially those that see some kind of viral uptake.
  • Distance: Plausible distance between the brand and content that does not live up to its standards (something that is hard to realize on a corporate blog and impossible via internally sponsored research projects or case studies, which is typically how these employees are showcased today).
  • Authenticity: People trust other people more than they trust brands. By allowing employees to put their own face to these ideas and projects, brands reduce skepticism/cynicism and let ideas be judged on the merits.
  • Employee Retention: As employees feel like their voice is heard, and have opportunities to contribute to the company outside the bounds of their existing position, they will be more likely to feel loyal to and stay with their employer.
  • Employee Recruitment: As potential employees see current employees building their brands and becoming thought leaders, the company will become a more desirable place of work and attract a higher level of talent.

To see one version of how brands might execute this strategy, I’ve written in detail about how Medium can facilitate this model (one employed by the Gates Foundation).

The history of the web — from early forums like UseNet and The Well to the blogosphere(s) of the 2000s all the way through the development of the social web — is a story about innovation through openness, connection and conversation. So much value created during those time periods was based on the free exchange of ideas and experimentation that the web enabled. That version of the web disrupted everything from commerce to politics to media, generating new ideas, and lifting up new leaders who might not have emerged under the older system.

That kind of disruption was uncomfortable, particularly to incumbent brands, and it continues to create challenges for brands every single day (as any digital customer care representative can tell you). In their attempts to reassert control, the ability to harness the ideas and innovations provided by high-performing mid-level employees got lost in the process.

Brands that continue to choose the muzzle over the microphone — control over openness — risk losing those star employees to competitors with a greater appetite for experimentation. What’s more, they risk disruption from new competitors evolving at a quicker pace.

Those that can recreate and harness the dynamic of the early web — encouraging conversation, exploration and experimentation that is beneficial to both the brand and the employee — will find themselves with a truly engaged workforce, and perhaps become a genuine thought leader in their field.

Mike Connery is is a Senior Vice President of Digital Communications in Weber Shandwick’s Washington DC office, and the author of Youth to Power: How Today’s Young Voters Are Building Tomorrow’s Progressive Majority.

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