PR Failure #35: Embracing Your Employee’s Influence

It is still in the early days when it comes to companies empowering employees to become effective brand advocates—supporting team members in sharing smart, superior content through their socials. It is a missed opportunity for many, as employees can be much more effective due to their insider knowledge and (if it’s authentic) passion for their workplace. People are far more likely to trust information shared by a company’s employees versus its CEO, according to recent research shared by the Edelman Trust Barometer. And when their powers combine, employees have a potentially greater reach than a corporate brand social media account. LinkedIn revealed that employee networks have 10 times more connections (on average) than a company has followers on its platform, as an example. Also from LinkedIn, the click-through rate (CTR) on a piece of content is two times higher when posted to an employee account versus a corporate account.

Despite these statistics, many employers remain hesitant and stuck in social media policies crafted years ago. This isn’t to say there aren’t pitfalls to consider, but in failing to recognize the tremendous power your employee influencers have, you’re likely missing out on significant communications value.

Let’s look at a few examples that hit the headlines.

1. How to Fillet Your Free, Positive PR

Chick-fil-A failed to optimize an opportunity last month that continues to bear PR fruit for the former employee and the smart companies that picked her up. A bit of background: Miriam Webb, age 22, with her TikTok account @mirithesiren, began working at Chick-fil-A approximately four months ago. Webb had been sharing near-daily reviews of menu options and hacks, with her videos becoming quite popular (posts were starting to pull in millions of views). At around 121,000 followers and 3.5 million likes, Webb would kick off each video with: “It’s a great day at Chick-fil-A, and today I’m going to show you what I get on my employee meal.”

Then, Webb was invited in for a meeting.

When informed the videos ran afoul of Chick-fil-A’s employee handbook, Webb took her signature cheerfulness back to the socials—she expressed disappointment but no hard feelings. She wasn’t fired (just told to stop posting), but Webb decided to leave.

@mirithesiren Chick-fil-A Corporate has asked me to stop making content. I’m sorry you guys :/ Thank you for all the support and love but an era has ended. “The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of TC&Js Enterprises, Chick-fil-A Whittwood, nor Chick-fil-A, Inc.” #fyp #chickfila #chickfilaemployee #chickfilasauce #chickfilahacks #curlyhair #blackgirl ♬ original sound – mirithesiren

Lessons Learned

While Webb is still winning, Chick-fil-A missed out—even the company’s PR team saw the value, allegedly telling Webb they loved her videos. The former employee is now collaborating with several brands, including Shake Shack, El Pollo Loco, and Duck Donuts, and she shared recently with Inc. that she’s “making more money than [she] ever had in [her] entire life.” Rather than doubling down on an outdated policy, Chick-fil-A could have considered Webb’s content and should have studied her audience. Webb’s posts were highly affirmative and inspired customers to try new menu items, while viewership numbers continued to increase (as of writing this communication, Webb’s account is approaching 140,000 followers and has 4 million views).

This isn’t Chick-fil-A’s first failure when it comes to employee advocacy, and sadly, it probably won’t be the last.

2. How to Paint Your Company into a Corner

Sherwin-Williams… This one was harsher and bigger in terms of the bad PR and lack of foresight, leading to a ton of likely lost revenue. Also, we’re still hearing from the employee in this story, as he’s gone on to launch his own successful paint brand.

Tony Piloseno was a marketing student and employee of Sherwin-Williams, with 1.4 million TikTok followers and a passion for paint. He was excited to do right by the brand, sharing that he “thought that building that brand awareness early through content that people were enjoying, was a fantastic idea to, you know, get the Sherwin name out there more than it already was with a new generation of future painters.”

Piloseno’s supervisors seemingly saw the brand benefits, encouraging him to take his content to the company’s marketing team. But his ideas were dismissed and then so was he from the company. Instead of seeing the value of and potential draw for a younger, expanding audience that will be buying paint for decades to come, Sherwin-Williams called Piloseno’s efforts “gross misconduct” and called it a day. The paint company lost the positive PR Piloseno had been generating and received bad press specifically from the firing.

@tonesterpaints How i got fired for paint mixing #storytime #journey #artist #fyp ♬ Worship Instrumental – Adrian Jonathan

Lessons Learned

The Orlando Life caught up with Piloseno last summer, and he’s thriving as the creator of Tonester Paints, which was named after his TikTok account. Before launching his handcrafted interior paint line, Ad Age reported he had no shortage of offers from the other big guns in the paint industry such as Behr, Benjamin Moore, and PPG.

There’s a reason for the phrase “like watching paint dry.” While artists and some others may disagree, it can be challenging to make mixing paint interesting for the masses. Yet, Piloseno was accomplishing this feat—his sixth post secured one million views. But Sherwin-Williams not only failed to respect the prospect of leveraging the positive PR supplied by a passionate employee, but they also fired him, lost his growing followership, and relinquished future customers.

3. How to Not Keep the Doctor Away

And finally, we have Apple, with a history of tamping down employees for various reasons related to social shares. Apple contractor Nylah Boone, working at the company for 15 months, shared a video titled “Day in the life of a Black girl working in tech.” Boone secured nearly 400,000 views and received hundreds of comments, asking her for career advice and showing interest in her point of view as a person of color and woman in the tech world. While the video didn’t reveal any sensitive workplace information, it was filmed in the office—it appears Boone wasn’t fired per se, and she wasn’t approached about the video. However, her long-running contract wasn’t renewed shortly thereafter, leading to suspicion regarding the cause.

Paris Campbell, an Apple engineer, actually was threatened with firing after posting a response to a customer (garnering 5 million views in about 24 hours). This video was shot at home, didn’t directly identify Campbell as an Apple employee, and was intended to be helpful, but it still was labeled a breach of policy.

@pariscampbellgrace hey apple, don’t fire me #techtok #greenscreen ♬ original sound – paris campbell grace

Lessons Learned

As Boone pointed out, employee influencers in various sectors are a useful way for companies to reach more applicants and increase diversity. Boone shared, “My followers or people that would reach out to me or comment were like 80 percent Black women. That was important to me to be able to connect with other Black women as well to encourage them, ‘You can work in this industry or work in this role.’” So, in addition to all the other misses we’ve discussed, this one hit home for recruiting. And Campbell was able to offer some hugely useful tech support to the customer impacted at that exact moment, as well as countless others who may encounter the same issue.

There are companies doing employee advocate programs right (Chipotle has had success leveraging employee content into hashtag challenges). There are companies trying, and there are those that are failing. It’s most definitely a good idea to put policies in place, as there are risks, such as a team member sharing company secrets. But there are also many positives. When you collaborate with your employees to create a safe space for them to share their stories, you benefit from the broader reach, authentic passion, increased diversity, and more—at zero financial cost. It’s something we recognize and work to support at Fearey.

As we keep looking at these blunders together, I’d love to hear your reactions and what you’re seeing in the world of well and poorly done PR. See you online!

Aaron Blank
President and CEO