If companies try too hard to structure the way their staff talk online about their work, they risk turning spontaneous comments into what looks like corporate communications. They need to find the right balance.

"A Company Shouldn’t Push Staff To Give Their Views Online But Support Them If They Wish To”


Interview with Alexis Bernard, Online Reputation Manager in charge of Web 2.0 communities at France's national state-owned railway company SNCF.

L’Atelier: What it is that motivates employees to talk about their company brand on the Internet, either via a dedicated website such as SNCF’s Opinions et Débats  (“Opinions and Discussions”) or via their personal accounts on social networks?

Alexis Bernard:On the whole, it’s all about having a feeling of ‘belonging’ to the company. And then there’s also the value they place on their own jobs.  At SNCF, staff are generally very active online. They’re really very keen to project a positive image of the work they do, actually putting that ahead of the company image, as the company doesn’t always score highly with our customers. They like to demonstrate online that they don’t conform to the old cliché that often gets thrown around. 

L’Atelier: How can the company get the best out of this online presence?

A.B.:I think it’s better not to push. I don’t think we should be telling people to go on to a dedicated platform or on to the social networks and make comments. If you constrain people too much, what they say starts to look like corporate communications, and that’s not at all what we’re looking for. You have to find the right balance.

L’Atelier: Do you think then that the company shouldn’t provide any kind of structure?

A.B.:No, that’s not what I’m saying. The company should provide support, especially on how to write for the web. We’re currently revisiting our code of ethics to take account of 2.0, with a view to setting out a number of principles and providing a framework. For example, if a member of staff is becoming too argumentative, we contact him/her to explain that there’s a code of ethics that you need to follow when you talk about your company. After that we leave it entirely up to the individual concerned.

If the company simply takes charge of everything and tries to keep control of what’s being written, this will just look bad to online visitors, who will tend to see the staff as a propaganda squad.  We need to find the right balance, and that isn’t always easy. You shouldn’t forbid, but nor should you completely manage online chat along the lines of

BestBuy, which has its staff provide feeds as part of their everyday job.  This kind of approach can work in customer relations but it just doesn’t make sense when it comes to basic conversations. What I think you should do is give your staff a general line, without pushing anything on to them. It needs to be their own initiative, their approach.

L’Atelier: So you should provide infrastructure and advice, without straitjacketing them…

A.B.:Yes. What we decided to do was to identify those people who were already posting their views online. We contacted them and met up with them to try to help them continue their initiatives but with an eye to quality. So we set up a private online space, with a Community Manager, in which they can exchange ideas among themselves and with us. These colleagues are also invited to various events and receive recognition inside the company for what they’re doing.

L’Atelier: You have both a dedicated site and a pool of staff who write in their own name on the social networks. Which do you think is more valuable for leveraging your brand?

A.B.:Neither the one nor the other. The most important thing is that staff post their comments and opinions wherever they feel most at ease. I don’t think it becomes more dangerous if we don’t restrict them to a given space. We know that they don’t always stick to the point in their posts, but at least that has the merit of creating a discussion between our staff and our customers.  Four years ago we had online visitors who used to insult us. Now they come on and talk to each other. So that’s already success. What I can say is that a single platform often appears to be a very good way to start, to raise awareness, to give advice. That’s how we started!