This guest post is by Miri Zena McDonald, a strategic communications consultant. Miri tweets at @miri_orgchange. She attended the Advanced Learning Institute’s Strategic Internal Communications Conference in Chicago.

Quoting Austin Powers, Sara Folkerts, Sprint’s social media manager, said that after merging with Nextel in 2005, “Sprint lost its mojo.” Employee morale was down due to a combination of bad press, loss of thousands of customers, deep cuts resulting in lost employee benefits and layoffs, and survivor guilt for those who stayed on.

Similar to any company going through rough times, when morale is down, employees talk. However, with social media on the rise, Sprint’s employees were talking on Twitter, their Facebook pages and other public forums.

“Are you listening?” Folkerts asked the audience. She wasn’t asking whether they were listening to her presentation; she was asking whether they were listening to their employees.

To give employees an internal place to be heard, listen more closely to what they were saying and provide them with answers to their concerns, Sprint created an internal social networking tool called Sprint Space. It allowed every employee the ability to blog with questions, tips, comments and other information they wanted to share. There are some usage rules including a Sprint Space Guidelines document, but Folkerts said that Sprint Space was supposed to be a place where employees can speak honestly without fear of retribution.

Both the HR and legal departments were in support of the tool, in part because they felt it had the potential to help move the banter to an internal space and change the conversations employees were having about Sprint on external social networks.

Folkerts shared a great example of how this community worked well for Sprint. Normally, employees get first dibs on all products sold by Sprint. A difficult decision was made to not offer a new phone (the Instinct) to employees because demand was higher than expected. Honest and open discussion was conducted on Sprint Space and employees were able to learn more about why this decision was made. To read more about this, see a case study that was featured on Entrepreneur.com.

Sprint has also increased transparency by posting links to media coverage about Sprint on Sprint Space to ensure employees were kept abreast of news being published about the company.

Moving externally, Sprint started a Social Media Ninjas Program to give employees permission to tell the Sprint story to customers, friends and family. Folkerts felt that the story in 2010 was different and more positive than what it was after the Nextel merger, and Sprint wanted to encourage employees to share that story. Quoting Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, the authors of “Empowered,” Folkerts said: “To succeed with empowered customers, you must empower your employees.”

To be part of the Social Media Ninjas Program, employees must attend a two-hour interactive workshop with an active discussion about what it means to be a brand advocate for Sprint. The program asks employees to engage with their existing personal social networks as well as with customers who pose questions on the Sprint corporate Facebook page. The program provides the ninjas with approved facts and consistent key messages to help them communicate about specific programs or technology. The ninjas are also encouraged to be honest and answer questions based on their personal expertise and experiences.

The program has 1,000 participants and is growing. It comes as no surprise that Sprint’s most recent engagement data revealed that the ninjas are the most engaged group in the company.

Image credit: YanC via iStockphoto

via iStockphoto

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6 Responses to “How Sprint is building trust and advocacy from within”

  1. Billy Kirsch says:

    What a great and smart way to take the natural social media conversation and move it within the company's umbrella, without squelching the real social aspects that employees need to express themselves. This is a great model for leadership and social media, thanks for sharing.

  2. Christina says:

    This is awesome! Sprint needs to now market this program/ software for other companies to use – it will be a breakthrough for employee relations & communications!

  3. Miri McDonald says:

    Good question Andrew. I seem to remember Sarah saying that it caught on very quickly but I can ping her and ask her to chime in on the comments here. Thanks for the question.

    @Christina and @Billy – glad you liked the post!

  4. Roger says:

    The company I work for started using an internal social networking application called Yammer. It is getting rave reviews. Employee engagement continues to grow in the company of approximately 160K.

  5. This post was shared with the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community by Jerry Carducci. My favorite thing about Sprint's example is that they train their "ninjas." So many social media advocates push the idea of having employees as brand advocates, but they don't recognize that an "anything goes" approach is not in an organization's best interests. Sprint's approach promotes employee advocacy but ensures they engage in legally-defensible and responsible ways. Well done.

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, SMinOrgs Community

  6. Sara Folkerts says:

    Hi, everyone. Thanks for the feedback on our program.

    @Courtney – Thank you so much for recognizing our training and content efforts. This is the key to our success, and Legal was a huge partner in our Ninjas program.

    @Andrew – Sprint Space (our internal social platform) is one of the fatest-growing communicaitons channels we have at Sprint. My goal is to get 100 percent employees using the site, and we hope some software upgrades and promotion of the site will help; to date, we have never promoted the use of this channel or "defined" its use.