Dorothy Crenshaw August 25, 2020 | 05:14:12

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.

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