The Myth Of The Social CEO

For business leaders, the rise of social media has powered a shift from public relations to public engagement. And most CEOs acknowledge the benefits of social engagement for their personal and corporate brands. Or do they?

Only 39% of Fortune 500 CEOs have a social profile, and most who are active on social media use one platform – LinkedIn. More surprisingly, recent research shows that use of social media by CEOs globally has declined in the past year. The annual report on CEO social media usage by ECCO, an international network of independent PR firms, found that just 15% have a presence on Twitter – down from 17% last year. Moreover, only 31% are on LinkedIn, down 22% from the same time last year.

You’d think that during the COVID-19 pandemic, C-level executives would ramp up social media activity. With digital and social media use skyrocketing during the shutdown and the climate of fear and uncertainty that has resulted, greater engagement would seem to be in order. But you’d be wrong, apparently.

Social engagement by CEOs is declining

What’s going on?

First, it could be that C-levels just aren’t convinced of social media’s advantages. And there’s actually not a lot of definitive research on the benefits of social engagement by CEOs. One of the better studies is from 2016, with data collected in 2014 – quite a long time in digital media years. And while it seems that a strong social media presence can help business leaders build relationships with stakeholders, the causative effect is unclear. Studies by Weber Shandwick find that executives who engage on social platforms are seen as good communicators and often well-regarded as business leaders. But much of the research is based on the perception of internal executives. And it’s not clear if the most well-regarded CEOs are more likely to be socially visible because they’re popular, or if they’re popular as a result of social media activity. It’s a classic chicken-or-egg puzzle.

When perceived risks outweigh benefits

It could be that CEOs simply have other priorities during the pandemic. Or that cutbacks have affected the PR and social media teams that support social engagement by senior leaders.

Or it may be that the stakes are simply higher today. A careless tweet or quote taken out of context can unleash a fury of criticism. In the age of Trump, you can’t blame a leader for thinking twice. Shaping a unique point of view and knowing when and how to weigh in is tricky, especially now. Who wants to take that risk?

Yet the bottom line is this: there’s pressure to be active on social platforms. A strong social profile can be a powerful differentiator. Even in the B2B sector, today’s customers, many of whom are millennials, want business leaders to be present and visible. Social content has a humanizing effect on a brand, making it and the resulting conversation more authentic. A strong leader is expected to be a brand ambassador, a voice for corporate reputation, and even a social media influencer.

It’s a tall order. How can a business leader engage without risking a social backlash?

How CEOs can engage

Start by listening

As PR experts know, social sites are communities, and they can be tools for listening to media, customers and stakeholders. A good social engagement program will start with a listening campaign. It can inform a social media plan by mapping the key topics that engage stakeholders, identifying potential weaknesses, and anticipating questions.

Develop a simple social strategy 

A smart social strategy will dovetail with key communications priorities when it comes to messages and target audience. And when it comes to content, consistency is more important then volume. It’s not a good look for a CEO to have a dormant Twitter feed. Set simple metrics (engagement, re-posts, followship) to gauge progress. Use visuals to simplify a complex tech story or scientific narrative.

Broaden the social engagement bench

A social media commitment can and should be shared across key members of the leadership team. Most senior teams offer distinct subject-matter expertise which can be both valuable and shareable. A CTO or COO will have knowledge or insights that are distinct from those of a customer service office, but social content should be linked by a common strategy and organizational values. And a shared commitment can make the content more authentic while taking the pressure off the top guy.

Invest in content

Some C-level tweets are clearly composed by others – overly commercial, colorless and devoid of personality. A novice CEO should mix personal observations and opinions with sharper reflections about business or industry trends. Entrepreneurship, leadership, culture, and diversity are always fruitful topics. It’s fine to share information but even better to add a personal or business take on the latest news.

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 and offers the ability to screen comments before they’re published.  A blog can also help mix it up with guest posts, video entries or interviews.

Think advocacy

In my experience, authentic advocacy helps many C-levels overcome reluctance and drive quality content. Advocacy doesn’t have to mean controversy, either. 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. It doesn’t need to be limited to business, although that will always be a safer bet. The important thing is a genuine connection.

When The CEO Should Be The PR Spokesperson

Public relations teams and their agencies routinely urge leaders to build a public profile through social media and high-level content. But when should the CEO of a major company serve as its public spokesperson? How should a public role align with an organization’s business goals?

Research by Chief Executive magazine and the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations suggests that many CEOs don’t prioritize participation in a public conversation that departs from tangible business goals. Forty-four percent of 210 CEOs surveyed said their most important communication goal for 2019 was to sell the company’s products and services, and 60% said they were unlikely to speak out about any social issue. For those who said they did plan to speak publicly about issues, the most pressing topics named were data privacy, healthcare, and diversity and inclusion.

When asked which communications strategies they considered most valuable, social media and online influencers were chosen by 30% of the CEOs, nosing out original content distributed through their company’s own channels, which was named by 28%. It’s good news that corporate leaders are starting to appreciate the power of social media, but progress has been slow.

Some CEOs are masters of PR, for better or worse, like Elon Musk or Marc Benioff. And even those who aren’t household names have used social media to be visible and connected. Check out Brunswick’s list of the most connected CEOs, topped by Wal-Mart’s Doug McMillon. Being the steward of a company’s image and reputation comes with the job.

But most chief executives aren’t rockstars, and they don’t necessarily embrace a role as brand spokesperson. Many lack the time or commitment to deal with media.  They don’t trust the press, and they may be wary of social media and its risks. Or, as the Annenberg study suggests, communications goals and plans aren’t sufficiently aligned with business priorities.

Most professional communicators agree that a CEO with journalist relations and social media skills can be a great asset to any company, particularly an early stage tech company or an entrepreneurial venture. But we in public relations can do better at guiding our clients on the value of a public profile and the CEO’s own role in building one. Most importantly, the top leader’s role should support business goals.

No matter what a given CEO’s role, there are times in nearly every company’s history that call for the involvement of the a PR-fluent CEO. Here are some of the most common. 

To show leadership during a serious crisis situation

If the company’s reputation is in jeopardy, its CEO becomes the chief emergency officer by default. In a high-risk situation, a PR-knowledgeable chief executive serves as a visible and steadying presence. He or she may not necessarily deal directly with the news media, choosing to use social media channels instead to issue a fast response and to control the reaction. A truly critical event, like one that involves loss of life, major litigation, or a viral story like the United Airlines incident of 2017 usually requires an ongoing commitment by the company chief.

To announce a new strategy

It’s not always about crisis management. A new direction or shift in corporate strategy is best announced by the chief executive, who will confer more authority—and generate greater media attention—than other officers.  CEO involvement typically translates into valuable earned media coverage that may be used to communicate company direction for customers or partners through the megaphone of business or trade press and social media.

To launch a key product

Technology company CEOs often participate in announcements of new products at major trade shows or forums, even if it’s just to introduce a senior product executive who will then officially unveil the priority product and go through a features overview. The involvement of the top exec signals that it’s a priority launch and a move to watch.

To advocate in the face of government or regulatory scrutiny

There are risks to advocacy, but this is an area where business goals and social values can be tightly aligned. In my experience the PR-savvy CEO is typically the best advocate in times of regulatory review, where legislation may threaten the industry, or where it is needed.  A clear position on an issue, well articulated at the top, helps advance a company or industry viewpoint, and it offers crucial public support to allies, employees, and customers in what is often a lengthy PR battle.

To manage a corporate transition

It’s important to stakeholders that a new chief executive, or one who takes the helm in an environment of change or uncertainty, make his vision clear. A skilled corporate communications head will use the inherent news value of the change to generate media airtime, op/ed space, or owned content to communicate the company position, manage the transition, and pave the way for a new era of leadership.

To signal a cultural shift

The CEO acts as Chief Engagement Officer with company employees, particularly during a turnaround, and sometimes his role goes further. That was what happened when Dara Khosrowshahi was installed as CEO of Uber in 2017. The company had grown fast in part because of the hard-charging personality of founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick, but the resulting culture became toxic. When Kalanick was ultimately forced out, Uber took the unusual step of going public with its message, using its new chief as messenger.  The relatively mild-mannered Khosrowshahi appeared in national television ads where he explained its new cultural values and vowed that Uber would be a “much, much better service.”

The PR Case For The Social CEO

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.

Are Social CEOs More Successful?

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.

Seven Tips for the Social CEO and C-level Execs

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.

Invite commentary

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.

Embrace advocacy

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.