Even though the subject of internal influence has been discussed seriously in internal and change communication circles for the last ten years, the conversation has remained quite static, and when it does take place, it kind of goes like this:

“We need to recognize that there’s informal communication actually going on in our companies.”


“We’d really, really like to control it as much as possible.”

What does that have to do with the difference between “ambassadors” (or “champions”) and “influencers?”


For years, most of the energy companies have put into “informal” communication has been focused on “ambassadors” programs, where employees are formally nominated by managers, HR, or other functions to push endorsed agendas and behaviors.

Ambassadors programs are not necessarily bad.

But they get problematic when companies and managers call them “influencer” programs and calling program members “the influencers.”

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a quote by mike klein


Influencers are the people in organizations that their peers turn to for support, knowledge or sense-making.

They aren’t nominated by anyone.

They become influential by generating respect, sharing knowledge and putting things into context for peers who ask them to do so.

Managers and HR usually have little idea about who is actually influential — particularly as the often show a bias towards the employees who are most cooperative, compliant or enthusiastic.

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In an argument with a traditionally-minded London-based engagement pro, the two of us discussed our preferred approaches to accelerating internal messaging. “Why would you want to bypass the line manager?” he said. “Why would you want to bypass the real conversations that actually make a difference to employees?” I replied.

The problem with ambassadors programs and fake “influencers” programs comes when companies try to replace or step over the real informal communication in their ranks, especially with no knowledge of how that real informal communication actually works.

Rather than “taking back control,” companies can intensify cynicism and degrade their own credibility by inserting nominees into the informal communication process who lack the reputation, skills and track record to be genuinely influential.

In doing so, suppress the real influence that is critical to sustaining the organizational conversation. It’s like taking the old-school cascade and painting a friendly face on it.


At the same time, organizations that make the effort to identify their real influencers can be confronted by the question of what to do afterward. Do they simply try to “influence the influencers,” and upgrade the quality of their interactions with the business, or do they out them and attempt to make them act as visible ambassadors — putting them all in the “yellow shirt”?

Outing your influencers has significant risks — once known publicly, they may become seen as “company agents,” and lose a chunk of the credibility and influence that make them worth identifying in the first place.

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Can ambassadors programs coexist effectively with an identified influencer group? Yes. When ambassadors programs don’t pretend to be representative of “the real organization” but are positioned to champion limited agendas, they can be highly effective at moving the needle on those agendas.

One program that took place in a previous company, a high-visibility values ambassador program in Italy which purposely nominated young, ambitious and tech-savvy employees, was very effective at sharing an understanding of values definitions.

Indeed, even though there has been little research done to date, I sense that the effectiveness of ambassadors programs can be improved by connecting them with real influencers, seeking their informal guidance, and if absolutely necessary, their overt support.

Precisely because the nominated ambassadors lack the networks, content, and context that make influencers influential, being able to tap into the organization’s reservoir of influence without damaging it offers ambassadors a chance to better achieve their own objectives, and perhaps become more influential themselves.

This article originally appeared on Medium and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

Mike Klein is an internal, social and political communication consultant with a long record of thought leadership and industry activism.  Author of the book, From Lincoln to LinkedIn, Mike has been working on and writing about internal influence, and leads a training course to give communication pros the basics of conducting their own internal influence research.  Mike holds an MBA from London Business School, is the founder of #WeLeadComms and is a consulting partner of Haiilo.

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