It wasn’t all that long ago that very notion of social media was somewhat frowned upon in the office. A flash of Facebook’s familiar dark blue glow on a computer screen (or the lighter blue of Twitter) would be enough to arouse instant suspicions of staff laziness or skiving – these daft websites surely had no place in a professional environment…

Yet now, in the middle of 2015, more and more businesses are cottoning on to the potentially huge benefits that online employee advocacy can bring. A company’s workforce is often its first line of public representation and, if harnessed effectively, can generate powerful levels of engagement, brand-awareness and content-reach across the web. If you have a happy and productive team, why would you want to muzzle them and prevent them from representing your brand in a positive way across social media?

content_journeyIf your business is on social media you probably have a primary corporate Twitter account, representing your brand as a whole and sharing the key messages, outputs and content that you generate. A larger business may then have a number of divisional or sub-accounts, representing different areas of the organisation and focusing on individual strands of work.

At the bottom of this pyramid sit your individual staff members and their own social channels. And this is where a positive and encouraging attitude towards organisational social media can reap powerful rewards for both your business and your employees. Each individual member of staff has their own network of contacts and friends, representing multiple opportunities to amplify your message and increase the reach of your content.

Of course in order for this to be achieved, your employees have to want to share your content and talk about you in a positive light online, and encouraging this kind of attitude starts at the very top. Make sure staff are fully aware of your corporate social media channels and what they’re used for. Ensure that your social media policy is easily accessible and incorporate your social feeds wherever you can internally to remind people that they are there and serving as key communication channels. You might look at including your company Twitter feed on the front page of your intranet, or featuring it on any internal communication screens you might have around the office – there are a number of tools available to generate an attractive visual feed of tweets for this very kind of purpose.

It goes without saying that some employees are likely to be a lot more comfortable with and active on social channels than others, and many of these may already be talking about their work online. These are the first individuals to harness – speak to them about your positive approach to social media and add their Twitter handles to contact pages or any other prominent presence they may have on your organisational website. Retweet relevant tweets of theirs, and show active support in wanting to help further publicise what they are doing.

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If you have a new piece of content that’s written by or focuses on an individual employee, and you’ve established that they are happy for you to do so, tag them in any social activity that you schedule around it. Showing public acknowledgment of an individual’s contribution generates real goodwill, and is also likely to lead to retweets or shares of posts by the people concerned and subsequently those close to them. If they are talking positively about their work or a specific project, retweet them. This kind of interaction can make your staff more likely to talk positively about their work online moving forward, and also to share other content of yours on a regular basis.

Don’t treat social media within the workplace as a taboo subject – celebrate it and encourage its use for network building, research, and engagement. Individuals on social media are generally more likely to trust other individuals over the word of a corporate account, so let your staff represent you and talk about your brand online – and encourage them to do so. Empowering your workforce to use social media as part of their job allows you to really humanise your brand across social channels, and reach more people in a positive way as a result.

If you are running an event or a project, assign a hashtag and actively encourage your staff to get involved in it. Whether they’re sharing photos, live tweeting, reflecting or observing, it doesn’t take long for focused online chatter to widen its reach and your people are key in achieving this. They do after all represent the first level of non-corporate social output from your organisation, and a happy and empowered team can only rub off positively across social media.

As with any public communication forum, there are always potential risks in the way your brand might be represented – particularly from disgruntled employees or those inexperienced or unversed in the use of social media. The best way to mitigate these is to maintain and publicise that positive and encouraging approach to social from the top of the organisation, whilst building and fostering good relationships with your staff online and providing necessary guidance and advice for those who need it. Lots of people want to get started on Twitter, for example, but just don’t know how. You can boost their confidence and look to provide training to help them do so, whilst third-party tools such as GaggleAMP can provide a more structured approach to disseminating your messages and helping your employees build their networks – particularly those who are new to using social media in a professional capacity.

I believe the reciprocal benefits of encouraging employee advocacy on social media far outweigh the risks, and whilst it certainly lends itself more to certain industries than others, the mutual trust and goodwill that can be generated alongside the increased reach and positive representation of your brand online make it a real winner in my eyes.