Employee influencers: United Airlines’ Jamie Rutter shares how they’re building out a program that puts employee voices in the forefront

These people don't need a social sharing tool. They're creating beautiful content all on their own. Jamie Rutter
When Social Media Governance, Education, and Employee Advocacy Manager Jamie Rutter joined United two and a half years ago, her role was focused on employees' social media, from storytelling to advocacy.

“The first thing I did was plug away at our advocacy program, which included traditional employee social sharing,” she said.

Then, she started hearing recommendations to reach out to team members who were particularly active on their channels or had a lot of followers.

As she started hearing more recommendations and looked into social media monitoring tools, she started finding more super users and decided they needed to do something with these employees.

“These people don't need a social sharing tool,” said Jamie. “They're creating beautiful content all on their own. We did more research and decided the best way to go about it was to really treat them like traditional social media influencers.”

In 2019, Jamie and her team officially started incorporating their employee influencers into brand activations.

Her team worked in tandem with their overarching advocacy and education programs and presented the influencer plan in a strategy deck for their leadership. In total, the planning and approval process took six months.

Even for employees who aren't very active on social, these influencers can lead by example and show best practices. Jamie Rutter
The first was around their new livery reveal, which was a big event for both customers and employees.

“We wanted to use employee influencers to get awareness out and help with sentiment,” said Jamie. “We also thought it could help our employees feel included in the large company moment. So, we called on a couple of our initial employee influencers that we know have large employee followings so they could show the event in real time.”

When they saw how successful that activation was, Jamie and her team started plugging the influencers into other campaigns.

“We wanted these influencers to help us educate and communicate with employees,” said Jamie. “Even for employees who aren't very active on social, these influencers can lead by example and show best practices. It's also showing us being innovative and inclusive with an employee group in a way that's kind of unheard of within the industry.”

Jamie emphasized this work also aligns with United's efforts to establish itself as a social-first company. “We're trying to think about social in different ways and use the best of our resources in ways that are new and exciting which ladders up into this part of our strategy,” she said.

Jamie said they predominantly find people through a couple of vehicles: brand hashtags and word of mouth.

“We start with our brand hashtags that we encourage employees to use, one of which being an approved disclosure statement,” she said. “We monitor those hashtags and identify posts that have performed well.”

We reinforced that we love what they're doing and did some knowledge sharing around legal and eligibility requirements, and then really focused on the community aspect of this work, too. Jamie Rutter
They also rely heavily on word of mouth. “We'll have people come up to us and say, ‘I met this employee who takes cool pictures of planes, you've got to talk to him,'” said Jamie. “Then we talk to that person, talk to their boss, and see if they would be a good fit. As awareness about the program grows, more and more employees are proactively reaching out to ask to be included, too. With a workforce of over 90,000 spread across the globe and influencers from practically every work group — flight attendants, pilots, ramp service, customer service and corporate just to name a few — these referrals and hand raisers are invaluable.”

Because they are a mostly unionized work group, Jamie said they have to follow specific logistical communications.

“Anytime we want to use employees, we have to go through their supervisors to make sure they're in good standing,” said Jamie. “For a formal assignment, we communicate through more traditional work email paths and work with supervisors on scheduling and compensation, if required. But, if we're just reaching out just to ask if we can use a photo, for example, we get the best results from reaching out via Instagram Direct Messages.”

Through these communications, they found they were answering a lot of the same questions.

So, they put together a large-scale, in-person training called Camp #BeingUnited.

They invited their roster of potential influencers — including only a handful of people they'd worked with before — to San Francisco, laid out their strategy, and explained what they were trying to do and how the influencers fit into it.

“We reinforced that we love what they're doing and did some knowledge sharing around legal and eligibility requirements, and then really focused on the community aspect of this work, too,” said Jamie.

Jamie partnered with their in-house creative services team to design the event from the ground up.

Our approach is hands-off to let them create their own posts in their own voice without input from corporate. Jamie Rutter
“There were primarily two of us planning everything and working with designers, with oversight and lots of support from team leadership. Sign off on the overall agenda from our legal and labor teams ensured the event met employment requirements and that the information accurately covered DOJ and FTC considerations for their content and branding,” said Jamie.

Instead of having it be a lecture on legal, she and her team decided to turn it into a game.

“One was a simple two truths and a lie quiz, but the other was more fun. We called it an emoji auction where we associated an action or statement with an emoji, and they had to guess which emojis were required for each scenario,” she said. “The influencers enjoyed it, and we had one team get a perfect score, which was great from legal's perspective.”

Then, they brought in an external guest presenter (a stylist, professional photographer, and influencer) to provide added value and experience to the group by sharing her best Instagram Story editing tips and tricks.

Their roster has now grown to over 70 influencers, who are mostly active across Instagram and Twitter.

There's at least one standout creator for practically every platform though, from YouTube to TikTok.

“We don't do much with the content ourselves, aside from re-sharing the best UGC or engaging with it from the brand account. Our approach is hands-off to let them create their own posts in their own voice without input from corporate.”

For mid-tier campaigns, Jamie and her team might proactively send key messages ahead of time to help inform organic content creation, but for tentpole brand moments they might activate select influencers with formal assignments.

“We also had some formally sponsored content for an environmental message and a special flight we did last year, where we utilized advertising and paid promotion,” she said. “That campaign, combined with two external influencers, outperformed benchmarks and drove impressive site visits and awareness metrics.”

Jamie said this content has exceeded their expectations in some surprising ways.

Recently, United's annual profit sharing came up, which Jamie said is a topic that is important to employees but that doesn't automatically lend itself to social media content.

We want to streamline different ways we involve them. 2020 is all about formalizing our processes. Jamie Rutter
“Profit sharing is a subject that doesn't naturally lend itself to social media because it can be complicated to explain and it's relevant to only our employees. But we had a great year as a company, and we wanted to encourage our employee influencers to share our good news with their fellow employees should they desire. We sent an email to our influencer group with the most accurate information and transparent talking points in the event they wanted to post about it.”

One of their influencers made an elaborate Instagram Story that pulled from the talking points. “He put his own spin on it and talked about how we got to where we were and why we should be happy with the amount that the employees got this year,” she said. “It set the bar really high for what we could have hoped for on that.”

Jamie said they've also seen some great results from the influencers organically engaging with content United is putting out.

Recently, United entered into a partnership with Ellen DeGeneres for wildfire relief in Australia, and Jamie said over a dozen of their influencers organically started resharing content around that partnership across their channels and showing messages of love and support.

“Even though we didn't have any involvement in their re-shares, it proved the basic purpose of this is to latch onto the advocacy that already exists with people who are already good at social,” she said.

Jamie is now looking at evolving how they involve the influencers and making it a channel option for any campaign.

If you work within organic opportunities and passion that already exists, it can grow into something you couldn't have ever imagined. Jamie Rutter
“We want to streamline different ways we involve them,” she said. “2020 is all about formalizing our processes. We're working on a regular newsletter and community calls and meetups to keep that community aspect, but also give them transparency about some of the things that are going on at United.”

Jamie said part of that plan is to standardize their process of giving key messages for different events and campaigns like profit sharing. Her team is also planning to repeat the Camp #BeingUnited event but expand its footprint with more conference-like sessions from external partners that are a true value add for content creators, whether it's about United or not.

For anyone looking to develop a similar program, Jamie advised always approaching it with authenticity in mind.

“Whether you're working on a social sharing program that's more traditional advocacy or an influencer program like ours, if you work within organic opportunities and passion that already exists, it can grow into something you couldn't have ever imagined,” she said.

Jamie also emphasized the difference between a program like this and traditional advocacy.

“With traditional advocacy, you're trying to get as many employees talking about the company as possible and focus on broader best practices,” she said. “What we're doing is all about encouraging and developing those people who are already doing that on their own and finding the influencers within our ranks.”

Jamie Rutter has been a member of SocialMedia.org since 2017. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter.