When to Let Employees Do the Talking

Two organizations that have a — shall we say — problematic public image have recently launched blogs using a tactic that I think more marketers should consider:They’re letting their employees do the talking for them.

The Transportation Security Administration launched Evolution of Security in January. Its purpose is to explain, in a calm and rational tone, the reasons why the TSA does what it does.The bloggers have methodically taken on the most common complaints about TSA practices and tried to make sense of them for a skeptical traveling public. In addition to explaining their tactics, they’ve highlighted incidents of bizarre passenger behavior that give a sense of how unpredictable their jobs can be.

The branding is subtle: the TSA logo appears only at the bottom of the page. The slogan — “Terrorists Evolve. Threats Evolve. Security Must Stay Ahead. You Play a Part” — is meant to invite the public into a discussion about security. Initial reaction has been mixed. There were more than 700 comments on the welcome post, according to the blog. Only about half of them were published because of obscenities and other inappropriate comments.

Comments continue to trend toward the negative, so much so that the TSA has playfully posted a “Delete-O-Meter” to count the number of contributions that were filtered out. I don’t think any of this sentiment surprised TSA officials. Their early statements indicated that they expected a lot of hostility and their bloggers are remaining relentlessly cheerful in the face of it. I think they deserve a lot of credit for that.

I only recently became aware of Check Out, a Wal-Mart blog about gadgets. It was launched last August but has been seeing a lot more activity in the last couple of months. Wal-Mart, of course, has been a controversial player in the blogosphere.It famously sponsored a 2006 blog about cross-country travel that BusinessWeek outed as being written by paid freelancers. It has also funded an organization called Working Families for Wal-Mart that has been ridiculed for being a PR stunt to counter Wal-Mart’s controversial labor practices. (Note: In an ironic twist, that organization’s web site has been replaced by a placeholder page referencing Wal-MartFacts.com. It turns out that Wal-Mart never registered the domain workingfamiliesforwalmart.com, and it has been co-opted by a foe).

What interests me is that both the TSA and Wal-Mart have elected to use ordinary employees to tell their stories. The TSA blog is written by five people: four mid-level employees and a PR person. Given the volume of comments, I assume that these people were offered ample relief from the demands of their day jobs, but it’s still important that they represent the front-line TSA forces and not the executives in Washington.

Wal-Mart took the same approach, selecting nine people just like you and me to speak for the company about their passion for consumer electronics.No one is likely to get very worked up about this topic in the first place, so Check Out is a safe move by Wal-Mart. But I’m sure that the decision to let employees speak for the organization wasn’t an easy one.

None of this activity is meant to replace the communications that still emanate from these organizations. It’s important that companies and government agencies have the means to issue statements on behalf of the entire entity. But when it comes to personalizing the interaction –- as blogs do — the decision to use ordinary people is a smart one. Social media is personal, and corporate executives aren’t always able or willing to communicate in that fashion.

The use of individual employee voices is also a subtle reminder that institutions are made up of people and that those people have personalities and interests and motivations that deserve attention.There is no better way to humanize a faceless entity than to expose the people within it. That’s a difficult concept for many marketers to swallow, since marketing communications has historically been built around executive communications.But when you look at examples like these, as well as other successful corporate blogs like those from Southwest Airlines, Kodak and Google, you can see why this trend is gaining momentum.Trust your employees to do the right thing, give them some clear parameters and they will astonish you.

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