Internal Communication Strategy

Four dimensions of internal influence: ambassadors, influencers, advocates and followers

One of the enduring memories of my undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin is a comment made by an otherwise forgotten Statistics professor: “There are two kinds of people in this world – those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

When it comes to organizations and their social dynamics, I tend to think there are four main kinds of people, each of which has distinct roles and needs to be addressed in distinct, yet integrated ways:

  • Ambassadors: formal representatives of the organization or specific initiatives.
  • Influencers: employees/members of the community informally sought for advice, knowledge or support
  • Advocates: individuals who voluntarily share opinions or facilitate initiatives or courses of action
  • Followers: those who have to be asked to take part in initiatives, activities or courses of action


In recent years, organizations have become more and more aware of the role of social dynamics in driving the success of initiatives and overall performance. For the most part, they have focused, with few exceptions, on intensifying the ambassadorial dimension in the form of line manager training and incentives, and in organizing and orchestrating “ambassador” and “champions” programs where employees below manager level are formally designated as initiative representatives or behavioral role models.

Rarely, however, has the ambassadorial role been integrated with an explicit appreciation of the role of informal influence in driving the success of initiatives and behavioral change, likewise the role of influencers in shaping and circulating knowledge and opinion.

In some cases, the selection of ambassadors is even intended to usurp the influencer role – to the point where an organization would call its representatives “influencers” without any evidence that their opinion carried any organizational weight.

Implicit in the focus on ambassadorship is a focus on control. Executing a formal organizational role, as a manager or a champion, requires the individual to stick to official channels, messages and interpretations in promoting the agenda.


Recognizing the limitations of hierarchy and control in driving change and performance, some organizations have invested in research to identify “influencers,” the group which research has identified as “the three percent of employees who drive 90% of the conversations” in a given organization. Through methods like organizational network analysis (ONA) and snowball sampling, it becomes possible to identify the credible individuals who are sought out by their colleagues for knowledge, advice and support.

According to Innovisor, the Copenhagen-based market leader in ONA for large organizations, there is a massive disconnect between those whom managers see as influential and those who employees actually seek out. “When as part of our research, we ask managers to identify whom they see as influencers, there is never much overlap between the manager view and the employee reality.”

It is rare that organizations actively find ways to integrate a real understanding of organizational influence when they adopt an ambassadorial approach to driving messages and initiatives. Much depends on finding appropriate ways for ambassadors and influencers to interact with each other – depending on influencer attitudes towards an initiative or the extent to which they are willing to be exposed publicly.


So far, a third group, advocates, has been given little attention as drivers of organizational change and performance.  Ambassadors are selected by the organization and influencers by their peers and colleagues, whereas advocates are self-selected. Some choose to engage out of a commitment to organizational well-being, and others out of sense of opportunity, while those who advocate contrarian positions may do so out of a sense of grievance.

Even though their credibility and levels of authority may be lower than those of key influencers and ambassadors, advocates are nonetheless a critical and often underrated piece of the organizational puzzle, particularly if they are passionate, committed or acting independently. If they can be recruited to participate in the most appropriate ways, the effort involved in identifying them and channeling their activities can be highly beneficial – integrating their energy and enthusiasm and enabling them to be focused in positive, constructive, and efficient ways.


In most organizations, the percentage of ambassadors, influencers and advocates is dwarfed by a mass of employees who are none of the above – followers.

Followers are a huge percentage of most workforces. But mass mobilization of followers, especially relying solely on ambassadors or on direct internal communication, is often ineffective and generally inefficient.

In part, this has been because the prevailing approach to employee engagement treats all employees as equal, failing to distinguish and legitimize the normal role of a follower – which, simply put, is to amicably accept ABC and to execute XYZ.  Good followership is valuable in ways that are entirely compatible with good ambassadorship, influence sharing and advocacy. But the ways in which internal communication and employee engagement are generally managed and incentivized often leave followers inundated with irrelevant information and bewildered by calls for greater commitment and attention to matters outside of their immediate work scope.

The first step towards success

To bring success back into focus, the first step is to recognize that every organization is comprised of ambassadors, influencers, advocates and followers in varying degrees. Accepting that reality, the next step involves questioning the authoritarianism of ambassador-only interventions and the laziness of one-size-fits-all approaches to communication and engagement. Then, replacing these with an approach which respects the natural roles of employees and harnesses their interest, energy and leadership.  Doing so will maximize the value of organizational influence by integrating its different forms, and create a pathway toward real, systemic and sustainable organizational engagement.

4 Dimensions ICK

Courtesy of IC Kollectif

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Enabling Employee Advocacy: Another View

Over the years, I have published a number of pieces about the emerging role of employees as an external communication channel, and of how internal and external communication are converging.

My Canadian friend and occasional debating partner Judy Gombita takes another view.

In a substantial, well-written post in PR Conversations, Judy highlights a number of legitimate concerns about actively mobilising employees to advocate a company and its products on their own social accounts and in their own communities.

A good point, but…

Judy makes a good point—employee advocacy programmes which are clearly contrived or coerced can be damaging to company relationships  with employees and customers alike.

But there is one massive thing she misses out:  that much employee advocacy is employee-initiated, either as an outcome of natural interactions between an employee and people in their own communities, or a result of an employee’s desire to help the organisation on his or her own time.

Enabling Natural Interactions

Like it or not, employees represent the public face of any organisation, even those with rock-star CEOs or KGB-style message management. They are continually asked about their work, and about their companies’ products, services, cultures and corporate behaviour.

Ensuring that employees are well-prepared for those conversations is hardly contrived or coerced.  Making sure that employees know the necessary facts and the boundaries of organisational messaging is conscientious, and indeed, compassionate.

It is conscientious because, given that hundreds of conversations between employees and the public occur daily, making sure employees understand key company messages can minimise unintentional and costly reputational errors.

It is compassionate because, for those employees who want to “do the right thing”, giving them a working definition of “the right thing” can be a bit useful.

Unleashing Employee Goodwill

In some cases, employee advocacy is employee generated—and actively seeks corporate support.  This is hardly far-fetched:  in the mobile industry, where I currently work, companies are heavily branded and are locked in fierce competition in each country.  Team and company spirit can be very high, and it is not unknown for employees to show their pride and champion their brand in their communities.  Enlightened self-interest is a main driver:  employees are not only proud of their brand identities, but know the positive difference even a small shift in market share can make.

Enabling, not Enforcing

External employee advocacy, when employee-initiated, can be genuine, powerful, mutually enriching and commercially valuable.  It is also an increasingly important element of the corporate communication picture.  While it may be unwise to try to stimulate or incentivise it artificially, it is even more unwise to discourage what is likely to happen anyways, starve it of the information and message guidance it requires, or deprive it of needed organisational support when it is asked for. Employee advocacy should not be enforced, but it should definitely be enabled.


Advocacy vs. Ambassadorship (Hint…there’s a difference)

Advocacy vs. Ambassadorship

Those of you who know me know that I am passionate about the role of advocacy within organisations—the extent to which people collect knowledge, form opinions and share them with their colleagues.

But when I talk about advocacy in organisations, I am met with this response, “Yes, Mike, we should start an ambassadors programme.”

A lot of people collapse the definitions of ambassadorship and advocacy.  On the one hand, they address a common need:  to generate positive word of mouth.  On the other, though, they represent profoundly different approaches.

In the larger world, the word “Ambassador” means an official representative of a formal entity, in most cases, a country. That means that ambassadorships are formal and official, and ambassadorial views to represent those of the country that employs them rather than their own opinions.

In contrast, advocacy reflects the committed expression of one’s own opinion, and the taking of visible actions on behalf of one’s own views to further one’s own causes.

Why is this relevant to communications pros?

In a world where brand transparency and consumer advocacy is increasingly driving buying and business behaviour (Trip Advisor and Net Promoter Score, anyone?), employee advocacy is seen as highly desirable.

But, employee advocacy is also seen as difficult to manage, particularly by managers.  Managers often see it as too important to be left to drivers other than management.

The formal, structured approach inherent in ambassadorship makes it much more attractive because it can be managed relatively easily, but produces a product very different from authentic advocacy.

Indeed, that which makes ambassadorship easy to manage makes it difficult to generate real advocacy.  The focus on standardization, manageability and consistency of messaging can stifle the sense of ownership required for employees to want to share opinions as their own.

A distinction, a spectrum

The challenge of generating and stimulating advocacy is one that few companies, once interested, are willing to leave to chance.  But viewing formal ambassadorship and self-generated advocacy as a spectrum, a communicator can have some leverage in balancing management’s desire for speed and consistency with the marketplace’s demand for transparency and authenticity.

Some questions to consider:

Who to involve:  usual suspects identified by managers vs informal leaders identified by peers

How to message to participants: common bullet points or stories rich in context and content

Which map to use:  tracking the org chart vs. loose demographic, cultural and functional balance

What tasks for participants to do:  Distribute information vs inspire actions and collect results

How participants should engage public:  Directing to company outlets or websites or sharing the love in their own terms on their own Facebook and LinkedIn pages

Not all advocacy efforts require the same approach—factors like regulation, national cultures, and compatibility with brand philosophies should certainly be considered.  But in recognizing that advocacy and ambassadorship are distinct concepts,  communicators have much more leverage in developing an approach that genuinely unleashes advocacy.