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

in Reputational Crises
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.
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.”
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, and so on.
That’s starting to change. In recent years a smattering of articles—not yet a flood—have appeared with titles like these from 2016:
  • To Engage Your Employees, Lift the Social Media Gag Order
  • Where Employee Relations, Media Relations and Crises Intersect
  • Ways to Turn Employees Into Ambassadors When a Crisis Hits
  • Tactics for Leveraging Your Employees During a Social Media Crisis
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” work force.
But if most employees are onboard with most of your message, the net effect despite the dissenters will be very much to the good.
The most credible claim seems to come in a wide range of similar but not identical variants from different sources.
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 I started using in 1995 insists, in italics, that “employees are a key conduit to the general public.” 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 [nonsense] 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.
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.”
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.
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 Barack 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.
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 work force 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. 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, since 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: 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 and look for commonalities.
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.
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), 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.
Calming people down doesn’t mean presenting facts that demonstrate how foolish they are to be so upset about such a tiny risk. Even if your employee and your organization are convinced that a 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; and so on.
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.
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.
In 2013, a Canadian pipeline company asked me to help its roughly 5,000 employees learn how to respond empathically and respectfully to criticisms of the company that arose all too often in their private lives. It wanted me to develop strategic advice and training modules—not merely pro-pipeline talking points—for 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 what the pipeline company wanted me to do, and was disappointed when the work 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, especially via social media?
is a risk communication consultant and speaker. Much of his work on risk communication can be found on his website,
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