When Personal And Corporate Brands Collide

[This article was originally written for Memeburn.]

Should employees have unlimited access to social media during office hours? If staff have access to social media how can time spent online be used constructively for business? What happens when an employee’s personal brand becomes bigger than their employer’s brand?

Millions of previously “ordinary” citizens the world over have discovered how to leverage social media tools to publish and share content online, rapidly establishing themselves as thought-leaders in their chosen field of interest. Many of these individuals are now recognised as key influencers and are enjoying perks previously reserved for the media elite.

This personal branding trend has received more than its fair share of attention. There are also hundreds of articles written every day on how brands can build customer affinity and loyalty through engagement on social platforms, but there is a storm of conflict and complexity brewing at the point where these two trends collide.

Every single one of my clients asks me if they should open access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube at their companies. The answer isn’t a simple one, and is likely different depending on the culture of the business and limitations of infrastructure. But assuming the company does open access, and they are the kind of business that acknowledge that, whether they like it or not, employees are building personal brands on company time, there are a number of pros and cons to consider.

Collaborators

The first category of staff active on social media and building personal brands during office hours does so in the same industry as their employer — I’ll call these Collaborators. David Graham, a popular industry commentator and Digital Channels Executive at Deloitte SA, is well known as a thought-leader in the digital space and a great aggregator and disseminator of valuable digital insight — a lot of which comes from the Deloitte brains trust.

His efforts online not only expand his influence and network, but also build the Deloitte brand — generating leads and helping differentiate the brand in the mind of potential and existing customers. The benefits are obvious.

Some might argue that, in the social space, Graham’s brand is bigger (in terms of reach and influence) than that of Deloitte SA. This is all fair and well until David decides to leave Deloitte or gets snapped up by a competitor. What happens to his social media accounts then? Obviously he retains ownership and would take them with him but at what expense to Deloitte?

The same argument can be made for First National Bank’s exceptionally popular CEO Michael Jordaan and his Twitter account. It is so inextricably connected to and synonymous with the brand that severing the two could be disastrous to one or both. Is there a case for having an @FNBCEO handle — occupied by the incumbent fearless leader? Surely not — as much as this minimises risk it also minimises personality!

The honest truth is I don’t know the best way to handle these dynamics. They only really become an issue when the relationship between employer and employee ends and until then both parties seem happy to ride the wave without too much consideration or caution.

Pseulebrities

There is a second category of staff building personal brands on company time – those that do so in a field of interest different to that of the business they work for. I call these people pseulebrities (borrowing from @mikesharman’s phrase).

One of my employees, John Beale, has cleverly leveraged his social media profile to establish thought-leadership and influence as an expert on cars and the motor industry in general. So much so that he seldom drives the same car two days in a row as vehicle brands line up with fleet cars in the hope of a positive review or tweet. I am jealous.

Personally, I love that John is building a solid reputation for himself online. He has a natural knack and innate passion for things with four wheels – why shouldn’t he have the chance to leverage that knowledge and passion? I also believe that a company culture that provides a platform for people to grow and nurture their personal brands is a forward-thinking, progressive and healthy one.

However there is always the potential that John’s commitment to building his own brand could impact negatively on his productivity, or at some point conflict with the work he does on a client. Again, I don’t have all the answers and solutions to these challenges but I’m trying to raise the right questions.

One possible way to ensure the constructive use of social media by staff for both personal branding and company growth is to ensure that if they are online and interacting on social media that they are doing so with a clear directive.

A company I consult to decided to incentivise staff to share their online finds (articles, images, videos, etc.) on an internal network (in this case Yammer), and then analysed the value of their contributions by how many likes, comments and shares they generated. This analysis played a significant role when it came to salary review time.

In this way staff were online, but constantly thinking about how to source and share content that was valuable to their colleagues too. In other words, the company decided that their employee’s ability to find and share content that benefited the business as a whole made them more valuable, and rewarded them for that behaviour.

Of course, different businesses have different dynamics and this value-driven solution might not work in your environment. Comment and let us know what would, perhaps we can come up with the answers together.

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