THE LAST WORD: Tapping Social Workers

Article excerpt

"Our good name is also his good name. The two are intertwined."

Ford must be a good company because my neighbor likes working there."

That comment about Ford Motor Co. came from a respondent to a corporate reputation study I was the editor of a few years ago. Though it was simply put, the statement impressed upon me just how powerful employee word-of-mouth can be in forming favorable--or negative--perceptions. Indeed in a later reputation study, my colleagues and I found that 84 percent of respondents considered word-of-mouth messages from employees credible, compared with 75 percent for media coverage of a company and 70 percent for PR and advertising spiels. Only an individual's own personal experiences with a company carried more weight than the words of its workers.

As this month's story on employee "brand ambassadors" shows, companies can try to shape word-of-mouth messages to work to their advantage. They can encourage workers to become ambassadors of sorts to burnish their reputation as a good employer and corporate citizen, and to tout products and services. Of course, employers can't be heavy-handed and dictate what people say.

But like PepsiCo Inc. and IBM Corp. in our article, companies can provide communication tools and suggested messages to enable employees to spread positive information to friends and family. And these days, employees' reach can extend well beyond their inner circle as their tweets and posts ripple through the blogosphere and social media networks.

Yet, because of the untamed nature of social media, companies increasingly view employee communication to the outside world with more wariness than eagerness. They worry that workers are more apt to gripe about them than glorify them on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

A recent study by Forrester Research Inc. indicates that, unfortunately, employers' fears appear to be well-founded. The survey of 5,519 workers in North America and Europe found that critics far outnumber cheerleaders. When asked whether they would recommend a job at their employer to a friend or family member, 27 percent were classified as promoters; 29 percent, neutrals; and 43 percent, detractors. As for touting their company's products and services, 27 percent were promoters; 24 percent, neutrals; and 49 percent, detractors. Forrester observed that, "It's entirely possible that the struggling economy has kept disgruntled workers in their jobs longer than normal, artificially depressing scores. …