6 Steps for Training Employees to Deliver the Right Social Media Messages

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
Although social media has revolutionized the way we communicate, it has also opened the door for crises if employees misuse the channels, making social media training a necessity for organizations.

Social media has become such an integral part of our lives that it's difficult to think of a world without Tweets or status updates on Facebook. Twitter has more than 200 million users, while as of December 2012 Facebook had more than a billion monthly active users, and LinkedIn had more than 200 million users in more than 200 countries and territories. The growing multitude of other social media channels as well shows the popularity of social media.

While the burgeoning participation in social channels offers new ways for companies to effectively engage customers, social media can also quickly turn into a headache for companies if employees misuse the channels in ways that embarrass their companies. Fashion retailer Kenneth Cole ended up in hot water when it Tweeted that the 2011 riots in Egypt were due to rioters hearing that the designer's spring collection was available online. And during last October's presidential debates, Kitchen Aid was heavily criticized when an employee used the corporate account to Tweet a disparaging remark about President Obama and his late grandmother.

More and more companies are allowing their employees to use social media at the workplace. According to Social Media in the Workplace Around the World 2.0, the second annual global survey by Proskauer's International Labor & Employment Law Group, in 2012 upwards of 40 percent of employers considered it an advantage to allow their workers to use social media both for business and non-business reasons, approximately 10 percent more than the year before. Further, the researchers found that more employers are adopting social media policies.

But while having a social media policy is a good start, this isn't enough, and needs to be bolstered with proper training. Back in 2010, in their book The 2020 Workplace, Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd predicted that within a decade social media training would become a common occurrence in the workplace. In a recent article, Meister, a partner at executive development firm Future Workplace, notes that the "turbocharged boom in social" media has outpaced her expectations and social media is fast becoming a necessity for many companies. "While it began as an added 'bonus' in the arsenal of the marketing spokesperson, now companies ranging from Unisys, PepsiCo, Adidas, HP, and Sprint are making social not only part of the company's core training curriculum, but also a key element in their recruiting message, stressing the employee benefits of receiving social media literacy training," Meister says.

Because many customers are using social media as an early means of communication with organizations, it becomes even more important to make sure that employees are representing the company properly over social channels. Georgia Pacific is one company investing in social media training. Meg Fligg, the company's director of social media, notes that her team holds monthly informal lunches to work on educating employees on opportunities in social media and produces a monthly article covering different aspects of social media which is distributed to all 20,000 employees. Further, the company offers face-to-face training to any employees using social media for business purposes. "Most importantly, we serve as an ongoing resource (which is more than training) to employees who are using social media for business," she says. "This support work includes providing feedback on inbound and outbound content, assessing new tools, experimenting in new platforms and helping others identify goals and measure success."

Here are six tips to make sure employees are promoting the right brand image:

  1. Go beyond the policy: While a social media policy is important to set the standards for the organization, business leaders should not stop there. Georgia Pacific's Fligg notes that while a policy can provide general rules, additional training provides the needed context for employees to learn how to think about using social platforms both professionally and personally. Joey V. Price, CEO of Jumpstart HR, believes that as a first step training will give business leaders a sense of employees' comfort level with the policy, indicating whether this is too prohibitive or if there are parts of the policy which are unclear. "You can get everyone's comfort level with the new policy and solve any issues in training," Price notes. Organizations should therefore use the first phase of training to explain the policy to their employees, and use this session as a stepping stone to determine whether there are any changes that need to be made to the policy.
  2. Familiarize call center agents with social media: Several organizations are using social media as an extension of their contact center, allowing the company to defray some of the costs of customers calling in. "Many people go to the Internet first when looking for an answer to their questions," notes Matt McConnell, CEO of Intradiem. Therefore, call center agents need to be given the skills to engage on social media.
  3. Extend training to everyone: According to Price, social media training should be offered to all employees, even those who aren't authorized to speak on behalf of the company since they will still use their personal social channels. This means that even employees who don't officially represent the company can have an effect on the brand's reputation if they share confidential information or make derogatory comments about their employers. Business leaders should never assume that their employees are aware that social media is public and what a person says can quickly make its way around the globe. Zappos, for example, includes Twitter use in its training for all new hires. "Social media training should be open to all employees simply because of the lack of separation between professional and personal information," notes Georgia Pacific's Fligg. She adds that it's imperative for employees to understand that the company they work for has expectations around their use of social media, whether they speak about the company in an official capacity or not. She uses the example of sales reps who talk about the company on LinkedIn. "While they may not be official spokespeople, we want them to understand that we have expectations around what they do in LinkedIn because they are talking about our company and our company logo is very visible right next to their name," she says.
  4. Explain the ripple effect of social media: As McConnell notes, a major concern for business leaders is that employees will misrepresent the brand or say something that will spell trouble for the company. The Internet is fast and unforgiving and even if a mistake is deleted, it can still come back to haunt the brand if a customer takes a screenshot and shares it on his own social networks. It is therefore imperative that during social media training, employees are explicitly told about the repercussions of their social interactions and why it's important to follow specific guidelines when representing the brand.
  5. Suggest best practices: Instead of focusing on what employees shouldn't do on social media, Price suggests outlining best practices. "Rather than telling them not to post negative comments about their employers, encourage them to consider the reputation of the organization and of themselves before posting a comment," he suggests.
  6. Train employees to identify trends: As McConnell puts it, social media is no longer solely a vehicle to communicate with customers, but also an important source of data for organizations. "It's not just about etiquette, grammar, and representing the brand," he says. Instead, employees should be trained to look at social media as an important source of customer data, allowing them to glean more insight into clients' needs and preferences and also be able to identify trends.

Finally, while brands might have control over the organization's official social networks and can also ban personal use of social media during working hours, they have little power over what their employees say over their own social channels. This makes it absolutely essential to train employees in social media practices and explain to them why certain comments can be detrimental to the company and potentially to the employees themselves.