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Coral Communication's Nick Barnes looks at the whys and why nots of a social approach to employee engagement.


“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Warren Buffett.

If Mr Buffett was to say this today he may well say, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and one negative hashtag to trend viral to ruin it.”

In this digital age, online communication has increased exponentially and so too, inevitably, have organisations’ needs to actively manage their online reputation. Done well, brands are reaping significant reputational rewards; or suffering the consequences when things don’t go to plan.

Having a strategic approach to online reputation management is essential. However, it would be a mistake to focus solely on external audiences when it comes to managing our brands in the social arena.  Employees are an organisation’s most valuable ambassadors, so we must be as equally strategic when understanding the role employees’ play across social media and how that may affect reputation.

Employees have a powerful voice, and now they have a potentially global audience as well, only a hashtag away.


Branding by hashtag

In the last five years, the humble, and frankly barely used # has turned out to be a staple tool of the way we communicate on social media. Since 2009, when Twitter began hyperlinking all hashtags in tweets to Twitter search results, the hashtag phenomenon has not looked back, and can now be used to create and track topics across almost all major social networking platforms.

Hashtags have helped brands gain awareness and grow social media audiences that have translated into ‘real life’ reputational gains. Research has shown that tweets with hashtags get twice the level of engagement and are 55 per cent more likely to be retweeted as those without, with Instagram and Facebook following the same trend.


What does the hashtag mean for internal communications?

The use of hashtags can help to engage internal audiences in the same way they are being used to engage customers or raise awareness of social issues.

Internal social media takes formal, siloed communications, previously restricted to emails and slow to update intranets, and makes them open, accessible, searchable and ‘live’ for all.  The benefits are considerable and hashtags can have a useful role to play in aiding collaboration by grouping specific conversations so that those who choose to be involved can contribute and be heard. They help create a hub of accessible information by making it easy and efficient to search for and find the latest information about important topics such as #Changeprogram2014. 

Hashtags support employee engagement as they are generated by the needs of the business.  This is important as the link between an engaged workforce and brand advocacy is clear. But they also give communicators a valuable tool to keep employee conversations aligned to organisational strategy by establishing a set of specific tags reflecting business priorities.

Hashtags can also be useful in driving innovation, idea exchange and seeking feedback from employees.  Just as monitoring your brand on social media is paramount to good online reputation management practice, monitoring feedback and internal conversations is one of the best ways organisations can listen to their employees. Understanding what issues are important to employees delivers key intelligence that leaders need to be aware of.


When hashtags go wrong

There are many advantages and benefits to building trust and rapport with audiences through social media, be they internal or external, but there are also risks to a brand’s reputation when things simply don’t go to plan.

Examples of hashtag fails abound such as the infamous #McDStories where an attempt to generate positive PR spectacularly turned into a platform to tell horror stories about McDonald’s food. Or when Qantas showed how little they truly understood their customer’s when #QantasLuxury resulted in hundreds of tweets about how poor the service actually was onboard Qantas flights.

In the traditionally very controlled world of internal communications, the risk of losing control of conversations and the potential for an internal issue becoming external, has arguably slowed the uptake of social media within organisations.

Research in the UK indicated that 40 percent of employees in Britain have criticised their place of work on social media and one in five have directly criticised their boss.  Organisations engaging in social media and encouraging employees to do the same need to fully appreciate these risks.  They also have an obligation to make employees aware of their social media policies, provide appropriate training and leave employees in not doubt what is and isn’t considered acceptable from the organisations point of view. 


The final word: risk verses reward

Is there a risk of an organisation’s reputation becoming venerable by supporting the move to more open and transparent employees communications on social media?


Although evidence is starting to suggest that perhaps the risk is less than first thought.  National Australia Bank’s experience with Yammer is finding that it’s mostly a self-moderating community and in their network of over 100,000 messages, they’ve had almost no cases where posts have needed to be removed.  Their governance model is simple: comply with the clear social media policy, be authentic and respectful, don’t share confidential information and don’t post anything you wouldn’t want others to read.

But rather than focusing on the risks, look to the potential value social media and tools such as hashtags provide for employee engagement. When this bottom up culture receives the top down support it needs to be successful it will be invaluable in helping to initiate and guide employees to conversations that align with business strategy and build your organisation’s brand ambassadors.



Nick Barnes is a specialist in measuring people engagement, with more than 10 years agency experience supporting some of the world’s best known and most complex organisations, including HSBC, BP, Travelocity and BAA.  Nick has extensive experience working in and in close partnership with HR and Corporate Communications, in the areas of measurement, strategy creation and brand,.  Nick spent 11 years in London before moving to Australia in 2012 to establish Coral Communications. Nick believes strongly in partnering with people to develop and deliver complimentary and sustainable communications and measurement strategies.


Helping people in business thrive! 

At Coral, we partner with people; likeminded professionals who are passionate about creating an environment where people can thrive.  We help connect a business with its people.  How do we do this?  By restoring the balance to your communications processes; activating brands in the hearts and minds of people; holding the mirror on what matters most; and releasing creativity by navigating the path to innovation.