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A couple of years ago, my agency, Weber Shandwick, was invited by the Conference Board of Canada to speak to a group of North American executives about their employees' use of social media. They all worked in highly regulated industries and, while they were intrigued about new ways to enhance employee engagement, they worried about the risks to their corporate reputations in the event of ill-considered or even poorly timed comments made by employees.

We understood their concerns but the crux of our message was that, rather than limit social media usage, employers should be enthusiastically promoting its benefits. Companies should encourage their people to become ambassadors and activists for their brands. If employers are going to place a bet, they should place it on the side of expecting the best behaviour instead of dreading the worst.

We delivered the message with passion to an audience that remained skeptical. If social media is so risky, we asked, how did they feel about their employees simply answering the phone without supervision? And suddenly the dots were connected.

The case for encouraging employees to act as brand ambassadors has grown substantially since. Employee activism, a grassroots movement that goes beyond customer satisfaction and even engagement, is central to a company's success, and is the underlying foundation for high-performing corporate cultures. Many employees are already engaged activists, defending their employers from criticism and acting as advocates, online and off.

There are surely reasons for caution. These range from valid concerns about privacy, cybersecurity and productivity on the job to actions of rogue employees whose tweets may go viral, damaging reputation and goodwill.

Bad behaviour, however, is the exception to the rule. In truth, most companies take a lot of care in building their corporate cultures with the kind of people they can trust. So why not trust them?

PepsiCo, a client of our U.S. unit, advocates a connected work force even in its Intranet communications. On its in-house communications website, the company has taken steps to include social media "sharing" buttons on some articles and announcements they deliver to their employees. This decision demonstrates trust in how internal information will be shared, and gives employees an easy way to share it.

Employees are already speaking up on behalf of their employers, regardless of whether they have been asked to. Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism, a global study conducted by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, found that nearly six out of 10 employees are already defending the reputation of their employers in a public venue. Imagine the results if those employers trained them and welcomed, recognized and rewarded them for their efforts.

This was the mindset of one of our clients, Royal Bank of Canada, when the bank promoted Blue Water Day, a day dedicated to water conservation, and encouraged their employees to raise awareness on social channels. Along with substantial coverage on their corporate Intranet, managers encouraged their employees to share information online with their friends and family. The result: 21,000 employees participated in nearly 750 community projects in 24 countries.

Three essential elements need to be in place to successfully build employee activism.

Leadership matters. Employee engagement starts from the top. Our study showed only 34 per cent of Canadian employees are deeply engaged with their employers. Senior executives need to lead by clearly articulating what the company stands for.

Content is king: The best way to ensure employees stay on track with the company's master story is to provide compelling and engaging content in the form of infographics, videos and print that bring alive what you want to share. Today, every company is a media company and by extension every employee a storyteller. Provide stories, house them on your intranet or website, and those stories will be gladly shared.

Rules of engagement: Create a social media policy and guidelines for your business and embed it into your employee orientation process. Be clear about what is and is not allowed. Make it clear so employees will have "social" confidence on how to be responsible online and off. Our research found that employees whose companies encourage the use of social media are twice as likely as those whose employers don't to make positive comments about their employers online.

Building employee activists when times are good forms a foundation of ambassadors willing to defend you when times are challenging, and to speak to the public from a place of trust. The real risk is not empowering your employees to speak passionately on your behalf.

Greg Power is president of the Canadian offices for worldwide public relations agency Weber Shandwick.

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