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Opinion

How to harness the power of employee ambassadors to manage your reputation

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LENOX LIZWI MHLANGA

WARREN Buffett, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, believes that reputation is an asset that should be protected and maintained because of its high value.

He believes that a good reputation is worth real money and is willing to pay a premium for companies that have more integrity. In a memo to his leadership team, he conveyed that reputation is key, stating that anyone’s reputation can take a hit in an instant, and destroy what would have taken many painstaking years to build.

In my presentations to clients and students alike, I have shared experiences of how organisations I worked for dealt with reputational damage of all sorts. At my disposal were tools such as the “pub test” to gauge public sentiment about the organisation. It involves going to a pub and ask random people there what they think about the organisation in question. I am yet to find a more sincere source of sentiment than this, except of course from its own employees.

After a series of protracted human resources-related skirmishes with management in the early 2000s, employees of Dunlop Zimbabwe, a once successful tyre-making company, would show their disgust by neatly folding and hiding branded worksuits of their employer before leaving company premises. This was because they loathed the idea of them being identified as Dunlop. This was a far cry from the time when anyone employed there was a target of admiration. What happened?

Management took a confrontational approach when negotiating with workers on employee issues. It got to the stage where workers would regularly leak adverse information to the media. Issues came to a head when a much-publicised disagreement over salary increases and car purchases for management resulted in the former being barricaded in their offices.  That incident was the last straw that led to the CEO being shown the door. 

In a competitive business landscape, organisations such as the one mentioned above soon recognise the power of employees who have the capability of building or destroying an organisation. This was recognised by the successor who adopted a worker-centric approach in employee relations.

It led to a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the blue-chip company in a short time.  This was largely due the strategy to create employee ambassadors. That is, turning workers into individuals who actively promote and advocate for their organisation, both internally and externally.

In this article, we will explore how organisations can create and leverage employee ambassadors as part of their reputation management strategy, while also highlighting potential pitfalls to avoid in the process.

First, cultivating a positive organisational culture is the key foundation stone for developing employee ambassadors. Foster an environment that values transparency, open communication, and employee empowerment. When employees feel valued, engaged, and aligned with the organisation’s mission and values, they are more likely to become enthusiastic advocates. A toxic labour environment generates mistrust between management and workers. Employees as assets are far more valuable than financial or fixed assets. The sooner management realises this, the better for their company’s reputation.

Provide clear expectations and guidelines.

Creating employee ambassadors is a strategic and deliberate. To effectively utilise employee ambassadors, organisations must provide clear expectations and guidelines. Establish a framework that outlines the role of employee ambassadors, their responsibilities, and the boundaries within which they should operate. This ensures consistency in messaging and seeks to manage potential reputational risks.

Investing in training and development opportunities for employee ambassadors is crucial. Provide them with the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources to effectively represent the organisation. Training can include media relations, public speaking, social media etiquette, and crisis communication. This should be embedded into the internal communications strategy which strives to keep every employee in the loop on the goings-on in the organisation. Continuous learning opportunities keep ambassadors informed and equipped to handle various situations.

Authenticity is key when it comes to employee ambassadors. Encourage them to express their unique perspectives and experiences while aligning with the organisation’s values. Allow ambassadors to develop their brand within the context of the organisation, as this fosters genuine connections with stakeholders.

Celebrate and support employees who were doing well in other spheres such as sports, and making sure they were suitably branded by giving them moral and material backing; this guarantees brand visibility. Dunlop’s successful internal sports programme that supported soccer, netball, volleyball and tennis teams was revived after years of neglect. This did a lot to lift the spirits of the workers who participated in various competitions.

Recognising and rewarding employee ambassadors for their efforts is essential. Acknowledge their contributions through internal recognition programmes, incentives, or career advancement opportunities. This not only motivates ambassadors to continue their advocacy but also inspires other employees to become ambassadors themselves.

At Dunlop Zimbabwe, the management team introduced incentives for cost-saving and innovative productivity enhancement ideas from the workers. The response was overwhelming, and it gave the workers a sense of being part of the organisation’s growth strategy. The re-introduction of a scholarship scheme for both workers and their immediate dependants was a masterstroke.

Effective internal communication is vital for engaging and mobilising employee ambassadors. Keep them informed about organisational updates, initiatives, and achievements. Regularly share success stories and encourage ambassadors to share their own experiences. This creates a sense of pride and belonging, strengthening their commitment to the organisation.

 Social media platforms provide a powerful avenue for employee ambassadors to amplify the organisation’s messages. Encourage ambassadors to share positive stories, industry insights, and company news on their personal social media accounts. However, establish clear guidelines to ensure they adhere to the organisation’s social media policy and avoid potential pitfalls.

While employee ambassadors can be a valuable asset, organisations must be vigilant in monitoring potential risks. Establish a system for monitoring online conversations and social media activities related to the organisation. Promptly address any inappropriate or misleading content shared by ambassadors to prevent reputational damage. We have seen how brand ambassadors can be a handful. As for employee ambassadors, an internal code of conduct should come in handy.

Employee ambassadors should be encouraged to share their experiences and perspectives, but they must also be mindful of their role as representatives of the organisation. Encourage them to avoid discussing confidential information, making unauthorised statements, or engaging in controversial discussions that could harm the organisation’s reputation.

Maintaining an open feedback loop is crucial for continuous improvement. Encourage employee ambassadors to provide feedback on the organisation’s reputation management strategies, communication efforts, and areas for improvement. This feedback can help refine the programme and ensure its effectiveness eventually.

Employee ambassadors can be a powerful force in shaping and managing an organisation’s reputation. By cultivating a positive organisational culture, providing clear guidelines, offering training opportunities, and recognising their contributions, organisations can harness the potential of employee ambassadors. With a well-executed employee ambassador programme, organisations can enhance their reputation, build trust, and establish a strong brand presence in the marketplace.

About the writer: Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga is a communication specialist with extensive experience spanning 23 years, in the areas of public and media relations, and broadcasting. He can be contacted to assist your organisation formulate and implement an employee ambassador strategy on mobile: +263 722 400 656 and email: [email protected]

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