CEOs and social media: Fish or cut bait

Posted on August 9, 2012 11:10 am by | Business | Social Media

CEOs on Social MediaA month or so ago, I participated in a conversation about whether CEOs should personally use social media. One of the other participants rejected the assertion that it has become a CEO requirement, arguing that it’s a mistake to elevate social media to a special class among the various communication tools available to business leaders. Social media, he argued, isn’t more or less important than other forms of media.

The truth of this argument doesn’t change the fact that social media is no longer an option for CEOs.

That direct, personal use of social media has become a requirement does not mean social media has assumed some lofty position over other media. There are plenty of channels CEOs are expected to use regardless of how comfortable they are with those channels. They are expected to participate in quarterly conference calls, to deliver speeches, to handle media interviews. In the early days of the Net, many CEOs offloaded email to their admins. Today, there’s hardly a CEO who doesn’t write and respond to email on his or her own (although an admin may separate the wheat from the chaff).

Yes, social media has been elevated, but not to a special status. It has been elevated to the same status as the collection of other tools that are requirements of the job.

The CEO’s role

While these job duties are defined by the board of directors, a CEO typically is responsible for big-picture activities. During a talk I heard somewhere many years ago, a CEO said the initialism has two meanings. In addition to Chief Executive Officer, it should also stand for the three stakeholder audiences it is the CEO’s responsibility to engage in order to grow support for the company and its goals: Customers, Employees and OWners. The CEO is the company’s top advocate, ensuring the company’s mission and brand are presented consistently to these stakeholder groups.

The other roles a CEO is likely to fill—overseeing programs, products and services; developing and gaining approval for operating budgets; ensuring a strategic plan is in place and that the company recruits and retains the staff to execute the plan—all rely on the support of those stakeholder groups. No organization remains viable long without the license to operate granted by these groups.

Social media has evolved into a vital link to each of these audiences. Ignoring social media a decade ago was fine. Ignoring it today is dereliction.

Consider the employee audience. Organizations invest considerable sums—sometimes millions of dollars—in their intranets. Yet only 28% of executives support and contribute personally to their company’s intranet, despite the fact that intranets typically fail without these contributions (according to a study from IABC and Prescient Digital Media).

Ninety-four percent of employees surveyed by Brandfog believe their leaders’ presence in external social channels would enhance the brand. They also believe their CEOs engagement in social channels will improve crisis management (93%), improve the trustworthiness of the company (82%), result in better communications (78%) and improve recruitment (78%). Most importantly, 81% of employees said a CEO engaging in social media is a better leader.

Customers and shareholders

Customers also prefer organizations whose CEOs participate. More than 82% of respondents to a Brandfog survey said they were likely (or much more likely) to trust a company whose CEO and team are active in social media. Seventy-seven percent were more (or much more) likely or willing to buy from a company whose CEO and leadership team demonstrate the mission and values through their social media interactions.

As for shareholders, Omniture founder Josh James noted in a Forbes guest post that CEO failure to catch up to the public’s adoption of social media is a failure to create shareholder value. “If they persist in lagging far behind the general population in social media participation and not delivering value to the shareholders that is there for the taking, they may not be CEOs for much longer,” he wrote.

The fact that more than 80% of respondents to Brandfog’s 2012 CEO, Social Media and Leadership Survey (PDF) believe CEOs who engage on social media are better equipped than their peers to lead lends credence to James’ assertion that CEO engagement is a source of shareholder value creation.

Yet despite mounting evidence that social media has risen to the same level as email and public speaking as a leadership responsibility (after all, 94% of companies are using social media in one way or another, according to MBA Programs), most leaders have shrugged it off. Only 30% of all CEOs have any kind of social media presence at all.

Beyond the Fortune 500, the situation is even worse. The widely reported IBM Global CEO Study found that, of the 1,709 CEOs interviewed—representing 18 industries in 64 countries—a mere 16% participate in social channels. These leaders, despite overwhelming evidence of social media’s importance to business, list social media last in importance among the means by which they and their companies connect to their critical audiences. Leading the list is face-to-face, which is hard to argue but is equally hard to employ in most communication situations when audiences are dispersed and unable to participate in real time. Even advisory groups beat out social media.

The study does hold out some hope, projecting that the percentage of CEOs engaging in social media should zoom to 57% by 2017. This prediction is based on the number of CEOs who list personalizing relationships with customers as their top priority. Seventy-three percent of respondents want to invest substantially in order to improve the insights customers can give. Candor and engagement on social sites could provide the perfect avenue for achieving that goal, the study suggests.

Overcoming the resistence

Why the dismissal of a communication channel that is clearly as important as any other CEOs embrace? It’s too overwhelming, they say (according to a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs), they fear sharing information they shouldn’t, it requires too much of a commitment, they don’t understand it, they don’t have the time, it magnifies their mistakes and they feel like they’re too old to start figuring it out now.

My colleague who argued against raising social media to some sort of zenith believes that CEOs should assess each communication tool based on its merits for each individual situation. That’s always true in any strategic communication planning exercise, with tools and tactics determined only after you have identified goals, strategies and tactics. But for each of the tools to which CEOs are already accustomed, they already have a presence and experience. They know how to talk to analysts during a quarterly earnings call. They know how to address shareholders at the annual meeting. They get media training in order to represent themselves and their companies well during a media interview.

I’m not suggesting lifting social media to a position above all other media. On the contrary, I’m suggesting that CEOs pay it the same attention they pay the other communication channels on their list.

Over the course of the last 10 years or so, I’ve interviewed several CEOs who do use social media. They talk about social channels saving them time; they’re more effective than older, creakier tools like email. They share experiences of using social media to put down a looming crisis in minutes instead of weeks. They talk about the ability to reach their audiences directly rather than relying on the increasingly unreliable filter of the media. A few of these CEOs expected to accrue these benefits. Most were taken by surprise that social media proved to be a CEO efficiency tool rather than the burden they expected.

Does all this mean a CEO has to post cat videos to YouTube, talk about his vacation on Facebook or post daily to a blog? Of course not. Everybody using social media chooses the channels most appropriate to their interests and temperaments. It should be no different for company leaders.

It’s a leap, though, to go from utter dismissal of social media to finding the right channels and getting up to speed. It’s clear, however, that the benefits of engagement far outweigh the risks, many of which are perceived and most of which can be minimized through the same kind of coaching CEOs routinely get for public speaking, press interviews and crisis situations. Any participation will better prepare a CEO to use social media under those specific circumstances when it is clearly the best communication tool at the CEO’s disposal than no participation at all.

Here’s what’s clear: Abdicating the now-vital social component of the CEO’s role is a leadership failure. Those 84% of CEOs not using social media at all need to stop making excuses and do what’s right for their customers, employees and shareholders.

08/09/12 | 2 Comments | CEOs and social media: Fish or cut bait



  • 1.Shel, I'm encouraged by the recent willingness of my company's president to consider my ideas for us to use social media for internal dialogues. While it may happen in my lifetime, I was bemused when I just discovered that someone in I.T. decided to block access to your blog because it tripped the Websense filter, "Social Networking." Maybe I.T. Will block the president's access to blogging. THAT would make for interesting reading!

    Tom Keefe | August 2012 | Chicago

  • 2.This post caught my intention, in the first two sentences. Sometimes I think when you see social media accounts, you know when a CEO's account is being managed by someone else other than themselves.

    Bradley Gordon | August 2012 | Canada

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