Not long ago, a chief executive could lead a business, even a large one, fairly quietly, leaving public relations and social media management to the corporate communications team. The CEO job was mainly to deliver a strong financial performance.
Today, things are different. A capable business leader is expected to also serve as a brand ambassador, a voice for corporate reputation, and a social media personality.
Yet social engagement presents both opportunities and risks for the top guy. Steve Tappin puts it well when he explains that the rise of social media represents not just a technological shift, but a cultural one, for business leaders. Mastering digital technology is the easy part. Shaping a unique point of view and knowing when and how to weigh in is a bit trickier. C-level executives feel pressed to grow a presence on major social platforms and to show currency on matters ranging from politics to pop culture.
When used well, social media blends direct communication with customers and employees, thought leadership, and brand-building. Above all, it helps create a more accessible and authentic image for a C-level leader and the business s/he represents.
But are socially adept CEOs actually more successful than those who shun the social spotlight? Those who push CEOs to be social tend to be―surprise!―PR and digital marketing people or other chief executives with a vested interest, like Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite.
And there’s the risk factor. It hasn’t helped that our current president is famous for his use of Twitter. Mr. Trump’s impulsive tweets have been a red flag to some corporate executives who dread being his target, and who’d rather be below the radar in any event. Only 39% of Fortune 500 CEOs have a social profile, and most who are active on social media use the relatively tame LinkedIn.
Yet there is some objective data that makes the case for the social CEO. A 2015 Weber Shandwick study found that executives who are active on social media or create content for digital channels are seen as good communicators and are among the most well-regarded business leaders.
Most PR and reputation experts agree that a strong social profile is a means to differentiate a business executive’s brand as well as convey the kinds of ideas and opinions that inform a thought leadership platform. It’s also efficient. A social executive can reach and engage with journalists, influencers, and employees with a single tweet or post. Social content has a humanizing effect on the brand, making it and the resulting conversation more authentic.
Beyond the most celebrated social CEOs like Marc Benioff and Richard Branson, I think Lenovo’s Yuanqing Yang does many things right as an ardent social media proselytizer. Yang is more typical of the future CEO, who will increasingly use social platforms (his are Twitter, LinkedIn, and Weibo) to build and engage a global following.
One benefit of a strong social profile that doesn’t get enough attention is the internal PR factor. A social media presence can help with recruiting and employee communications. It’s also not just about broadcasting your views or posting company updates; true social engagement is about interaction. Yang is a LinkedIn Influencer, but he makes it a point to interact directly with the public so that his company and its customers can learn from each other.
Social media is most valuable to a social CEO or C-level executive as part of an overall communications strategy. Here are some key points to note in planning such a strategy.
Start by listening
Social sites like Twitter and LinkedIn are more than platforms; they are communities, and they can be unique vehicles for tuning into the conversations of customers and stakeholders. As Hootsuite’s Ryan Holmes points out, Twitter is a great source of intelligence―from competitors, analysts, pundits, and others. After weeks of listening to conversations about your industry and issues that affect it, it becomes easier and more natural to engage others.
Stick to a social media strategy
Which audiences can be reached more efficiently or powerfully through social content? For example, a strong C-level LinkedIn profile and quality content relevant to prospective hires can enhance a company’s recruiting function. What are the organization’s communications priorities when it comes to telling its story? Where do visuals come into play in simplifying a complex technology or scientific narrative? What simple metrics (engagement, re-posts, followship) can you set to gauge progress? A simple strategy will help keep the social program from becoming a casualty of being overly ambitious. Only 62% of CEOs with a Twitter account are active, according to CEO.com. Maybe they wanted to claim their handle to head off hijackers, but it’s not a good look for a CEO to have a dormant Twitter feed. It looks like no one’s home.
Share the responsibility
We talk about the social CEO, but a social media commitment is something that can and should be shared across key members of the leadership team. Most senior teams offer distinct subject-matter experts, and that expertise is both valuable and shareable. A CMO or chief revenue officer will offer insights that are different from those of a quality officer or chief executive, but social content should be linked by a common strategy and organizational values. When it comes to social media, a shared commitment can take the pressure off the top guy, but more importantly, it extends the program and makes it more authentic and enduring.
When it comes to content, mix it up
Some C-level tweets are painfully self-conscious. Others are clearly composed by others – overly commercial, colorless and devoid of personality. It doesn’t have to be that way. A novice CEO should mix personal observations and opinions with sharper reflections about business or industry trends. Entrepreneurship and leadership are always fruitful topics. Business travel, last books read, the day’s headlines, family―all can be great social fodder. If all else fails, try sports. There’s always something happening, with a fan base to match.
Consider a C-level blog
A blog is still a natural hub for a CEO’s voice, and it’s a logical first step in establishing a content program. It’s also a practical way to address part of the problem of what to post/tweet. It offers opportunities to mix it up with guest posts, post video entries or interviews, and use graphics to illustrate insights.
This goes without saying; it’s the essence of social engagement. A skillful CEO will ask questions, use Twitter polls, jump on hashtags (judiciously), and RT or repost the content of other company leaders or customers.
In my experience, advocacy can help many C-levels overcome reluctance or even shyness. It’s ideal if the platform is business-related―like STEM education for a technology company CEO or a focus on entrepreneurship for a CEO who got his or her start by bootstrapping a business. But it isn’t limited to business; it can be support for a charity or other. The important thing is a genuine connection.
An earlier version of this post appeared on The American Marketing Association’s Executive Circle blog on March 28, 2017.