When staffers at the Internet Society took to their personal social media accounts to voice their support for the society’s position on handing off oversight of the internet’s domain name to ICANN, they weren’t pitching anything.
The society wasn’t selling anything, nor did it enlist employees in trying to help pitch anything. These were highly engaged employees who took it upon themselves to help people in their networks understand a complicated and misunderstood issue.
Increasingly, companies are voicing positions on issues that affect society. In recent months we have seen companies take sides on transgender bathroom rights, religious liberty laws, global warming and a variety of other causes.
Whereas most organizations once stayed silent rather than risk the ire of some customers and other stakeholders, leaders now recognize that stakeholders now make purchases and investment and employment decisions based on a company’s demonstrated commitment to their values and their resolve to make the world a better place.
Even company values statements—once worthy of little more than a yawn—can now provoke hostile reactions. Consider the blowback Kellogg’s got when it blacklisted alt-right “news” site Breitbart.com from its advertising because it conflicted with the company’s values of inclusion: Breitbart launched a boycott of Kellogg’s products and began publishing defamatory stories.
It’s little surprise that highly engaged employees are inclined to promote their companies’ positions, which fits one definition of the word “advocacy”—but it’s not the only definition.
I raise the issue because of a back-and-forth I had with a fellow communicator who took exception to my use of the word. In a post on the internal communications site IC Kollectif, I said (as part of a longer passage) that internal communicators “need to be the drivers of employee advocacy while steering the organization through times of crisis and change.”
My colleague contends that “advocacy” is confined to the noble act of standing up for a cause, as is done by a mental health advocate or a victim’s rights advocate. Somehow, referring to employee advocacy is a belittling of that kind of stoical dedication rather than just employing an entirely acceptable synonym.
I have not found a dictionary that does not define advocate solely as one who supports or defends a person or cause. Dictionary.com‘s first definition (for the verb form of the word) is “to speak or write in favor of; support or urge by argument; recommend publicly.” Merriam-Webster‘s third definition of the noun is “one that support or promotes the interests of another.” The OED says the verb means to “publicly recommend or support.”
When I hear from a company looking for help, however, it’s the company communicator asking whether I have experience with internal advocacy programs, not the other way around. There are plenty of case studies of internal staff touting their advocacy programs, such as this one from Rackspace.
The most troubling of the assertions about internal advocacy programs is that they are cynical ploys by companies to enlist employees in shameless marketing communications, thus demeaning the cherished notion of advocacy as a social justice concept. (Considering there is no shortage of people who call themselves advocates of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and a host of other vile beliefs, I have a problem seeing advocacy even in this definition as solely a noble calling.) I have yet, however, to see an internal program—whether it’s labeled “ambassador” or “advocacy”—that is as crassly commercial as my colleague paints them.
First, I have never seen one of these programs in which any employee is compelled to do anything. They are strictly voluntary; employees who participate get no preferential treatment (e.g., promotions, salary increases, etc.), and those who do participate are never required to share anything they don’t want to.
Second, many of these programs (such as the Sprint Ninja program) feature employees helping customers having problems. I learned of the Sprint Ninja program when an employee volunteer from Sprint reached out to me after I tweeted my dissatisfaction with an attempt to resolve an issue. Given that she assisted me, she was a Sprint employee who advocated on behalf of the customer.
Yes, program participants can share product and service information, but given that employees who raise their hands to join these programs are highly engaged, they do so clearly because of their deeply held belief in the products on which they work or the services they deliver.
Considering people see frontline employees as more credible than just about anybody else in a company, employees feel they make a worthwhile contribution by arguing for their companies’ superior product over a competitor’s inferior offering.
Ultimately, labeling a program “employee advocacy” does nothing to demean other types of advocates any more than calling the stuff that covers a tree “bark” demeans what we call the sound a dog makes. What matters is how ethically the program is implemented.
As employees begin to support their organizations’ positions on social issues, however, the term takes on even more legitimacy.
Just ask those Internet Society employees who suffered attacks by right-wing trolls over their advocacy for the handoff of DNS oversight from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Increasingly, employee advocates will be advocates in every sense of the word.
A version of this article first appeared on Shel Holtz’s blog.