Why it’s time CEOs (finally) got serious about social media

If Obama can do it, so can you.

Ryan Holmes
Jul 27, 2015 · 4 min read

Earlier this spring, President Barack Obama set the Internet atwitter with the launch of his first official Twitter account, @POTUS (an acronym for the President of the United States).

Right out of the gate, the president engaged in a lighthearted Twitter exchange with Bill Clinton, providing some great media fodder. The conversation also revealed Obama will have to give up the @POTUS handle after his term ends in 2017 to the next person who takes up post.

Yet there was also a darker side to Obama’s social media debut. It was reported, for instance, that the president’s account was immediately inundated with hundreds of sex jokes, threats, racist comments and other unseemly content. Then a few days into @POTUS, the Secret Service reportedly showed up at the home of a Minnesota-based writer for allegedly sending Obama a threatening Twitter message.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about this. You send a tweet to the supreme leader of the most powerful nation in the world, in only your wildest dreams imagining anything would come of it. Then hours later, the Secret Service comes knocking on the front door of your house. Yes, we all know the White House closely monitors threats (and has since at least the days of Abraham Lincoln), following up on those it deems serious. What’s interesting here, however, is something a bit deeper.

Digital technology (in this case social media) is making accessible people who historically have been too high on the pedestal for ‘regular’ folk to have any chance of meeting. Furthermore, good leaders are taking advantage of — not being put off by — this trend. Indeed, this is exactly why Obama has decided, six years into his presidency, to belatedly join Twitter. It’s a way for him to, according to a White House blog post, “engage directly with the American people, with tweets coming exclusively from him.”

I can relate. As the CEO of a social media company, I’ve always been active on networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. And as Hootsuite has grown — now with over 800 employees and 11 million users — more people than ever are reaching out to me over these channels, not always in positive ways. People have criticized me for everything from my personal and business decisions to my occasionally shaggy beard.

But the biggest lesson is that the benefits of open communication easily trump any minor inconveniences. Some of the best job candidate referrals I’ve received to date have come to me from people I’ve never met in person, via networks like LinkedIn or even Facebook. Feedback on our product (including one Tweet that called it “a piece of sh#t”) ended up leading to some valuable realizations and a successful product revamp. And more recently, I’ve taken to live-streaming video app Periscope to take comments and questions on any topic, directly from anyone around the world.

All in all, the immediate, unfiltered conversations have been refreshing, fun and oftentimes eye-opening. I’m certain the open dialogue helps make me a better leader. I think back to the days not too long ago when companies would pay huge sums to assemble focus groups of ‘typical consumers’ in order to get candid feedback. Twitter, Facebook and other networks now amount to a huge — and largely free — focus group, at least for CEOs and managers savvy enough to use them.

Indeed, it’s in cutting through endless layers of hierarchy and getting unfiltered opinions where I think social media can be of most value for leaders — in business or politics. After all, all too often we fall into the emperor-has-no-clothes trap, surrounding ourselves with yes-people who say only what we want to hear. Any effective leader, however, needs access to the raw, unfiltered truth, however hard that may be to hear.

From a business perspective, the benefits don’t end at unfiltered feedback. A recent study by global PR firm Weber Shandwick, for instance, showed that over three-quarters of the 630 executives surveyed believe CEO participation on social media has a positive effect on a company’s reputation. Moreover, the study revealed that 75 percent of respondents feel having their CEO on social media is beneficial for media and employee relations and gives their organization a human face and personality.

The pressure is on. Those ready to take the plunge might also look to someone like Virgin head Richard Branson. The wildly popular CEO has amassed a combined following of more than 15 million followers across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. One key to his social media success, says Branson — who reportedly writes his own tweets — is authenticity.

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