When should the CEO use social media?

Only seven FTSE 100 CEOs currently use Twitter as a corporate marketing tool. I am grateful to the ever resourceful Matt Ballantine for this figure. It is a statistic that drives the social media fraternity to despair: ‘why can’t the remaining 93% see the benefits?’

I would hazard a guess that the people running our leading corporations are pretty smart. Their collective refusal to embrace social media is a reflection of widely held beliefs that it doesn’t represent a good use of their time and that the benefits from a communications perspective simply do not justify the risks.

This deep-seated view is unlikely to change quickly, despite the sterling work of organisations such as the US agency BrandFog, which has commissioned extensive research into the benefits of becoming a ‘social CEO’: for example, one of the agency’s findings is that 61% of UK employees agree that a company whose c-suite execs use social media to openly communicate the organisation’s mission, values and purpose is more trustworthy.

In my experience, the decision by a CEO to use social media as a corporate communications platform is shaped by three considerations: their personality, their peers and the sector in which they operate.

Some people are simply more suited to social media than others: they enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, are sufficiently thick-skinned to deal with their critics and have the discipline and motivation to make the channel work for them and their organisations. They are also smart enough to put a support-system in place to deal with the volume of comments and posts: CEOs can’t manage their social media activities on their own from the back of a taxi.

Other leaders find the whole thing a trial and simply see it as yet another thing to worry about. They have compliance, legal advisors and corporate communications specialists warning them about the dangers and are all too aware of what might go wrong. As an Economist article stated in October of last year: ‘Thanks to the digital revolution, chief executives now live in glass houses. An ill-judged remark can be broadcast to the world in an instant.’ There is nothing worse than forcing these people to do something that makes them uncomfortable and wary: reluctant spokespeople are bad spokespeople.

Peer pressure can work to both persuade and dissuade when it comes to CEOs and social media. We have recently undertaken a survey of an industry sector in which none of the leading players has a public presence on social media. At some stage, one of them may be brave enough to put their head above the parapet, but it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Peer behaviour tends to reflect the final consideration determining a CEO’s decision to use social media: the sector in which they operate. Some business sectors are simply more controversial and challenging than others. The CEO of bookmakers William Hill quit Twitter last year, within days of setting-up at account, after finding himself in a continuous online argument with opponents of fixed-odds betting terminals. You can put in place the smartest support system, but if your Twitter stream is simply going to become a magnet for vociferous critics, largely uninterested in having a reasoned and civil debate, you can understand why many CEOs in high-profile and occasionally controversial sectors choose to steer well-clear.

One day, most CEOs will use social media as part of their corporate communications armoury. It will become a standard part of the job description and a skill in presenting the organisation’s case in 140-characters might become the deciding factor in the choice of one CEO candidate over another. But that remains a few years down the line, unless their fellow directors, shareholders and financial analysts convince them that the risks are worth taking.


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