Think of this: The average Facebook user has 338 “Friends”. Let’s say you have 20 employees—that’s 6,760 Friends of employees. So a post by employees about your company would probably reach more people than a post on your company Facebook page (especially given how little distribution Facebook gives to unpaid posts from businesses these days).

Should you ask employees for posts or tweets on social media? Not before you read these eight steps to setting up an “employee advocate” program.

1.   Make company life and your product or service worth sharing on social media.

As social media consultant Jay Baer says, “If your employees aren’t your biggest fans, you have bigger problems than social media.” Workplace culture, employee pride in their work—that’s the underlying topic of any social media posts you’d hope for. (That and Ugly Christmas Sweater Day.) Employees should genuinely want to share.

2.   Make your company social media pages shareable.

At a minimum, ask employees to follow your company pages and share what you post. So your posts should be fun and engaging, not a string of promotional messages. (Try these 5 Types of Shareable Posts.)

3.   Incent but don’t push.

For some employees, this could be a big ask: Mixing work images with pix of kittens, babies, awesome meals and other personal stuff. Don’t push—you won’t get the sincerity and enthusiasm you want. For willing employee advocates, recognition makes a good incentive, as in calling out posts that were widely shared (or even generated a lead) and publicly thanking the employees who posted. (But before you make any incentive plans, see step #6 for legal cautions.)

4.   Suggest content ideas.

Start with something easy: a “we’re hiring!” post for a job opening. Make sure some employees shoot and post images of company events. Keep employees on message for spreading company news by sending around talking points. Suggest a hashtag: See how Starbucks employees all tag their work-related posts as #tobeapartner.

5.   Set a clear policy for social media use by employees.

You are already at risk for anything employees say on social media. Read this article from the New York Times about employees who posted jokes–unrelated to work and on their own social media pages–that resulted in storms of online outrage, embarrassed their companies and led to their firings. In one case, hackers crashed the employer’s website.

OK, extreme examples. Here’s a more likely reputation risk: A bunch of employees go out drinking, get rowdy, post photos with #yourcompanyname.

So you should educate employees in general on how to conduct themselves on social media, and specifically how to handle company information—whether or not they actually post to company social media pages.

Ford Motor Company came up with an easy-to-understand set of principles:

  • Honesty about who you are [if it’s relevant that you are an employee of the company]
  • Clarity that the opinions are your own
  • Respect and humility in all communication
  • Good judgment in sharing only public information—including financial data [or any other proprietary information]
  • Awareness that what you say is permanent [as in hashtagging while under the influence]

6.   Know the law and regulations (and have your lawyer vet your policy).

For instance, Federal Trade Commission guidelines for employees say “You should make sure that your relationship is disclosed to people who read your online postings about your company or its products…Listing your employer on your profile page isn’t enough.” Be aware that some states have “off-duty conduct laws” that might limit an employer’s ability to take a job action for social media posting. Anyway, be safe, consult your attorney.

7.   Train on how to handle complaints.

Now for the downside. If employee advocates post about the company, unhappy customers may post or message them through their social media accounts. Train them on the right way to respond: Don’t engage, just politely say the message will get passed to the right people at the company.

8.   Track social mentions of your business.

You should do this anyway, but certainly for any employee advocacy program. Our company offers a social media monitoring tool and Hootsuite is a popular choice.

Don’t take anything here as legal advice. Before you set up a social employee advocacy program, talk to your attorney.