What CEOs Have Learned About Social Media
When it comes to social media, today’s CEOs have made a remarkable transition over the past five years. A recent analysis by my firm, Weber Shandwick, found that 80% of the chief executive officers of the world’s largest 50 companies are engaged online and on social media. The results, published in “Socializing Your CEO: From Marginal to Mainstream,” show that CEO sociability has more than doubled since we began tracking the social activities of chief executives in 2010, when only 36% of CEOs were social.
We audited a range of sites and platforms to see how CEOs are engaging socially and compared these results to its 2010 and 2012 findings. CEOs are considered “social” if he or she does at least one of the following: has a public and verifiable social network account on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Weibo, or Mixi; engages on the company website through messages, pictures, or video; appears in a video on the company YouTube or YouKu channel; or authors an external blog.
Being social was once considered too risky, because CEOs feared that saying the wrong thing online would ignite a firestorm of antagonists, dissatisfied customers, and disgruntled employees, who could threaten the company’s reputation. Now, having a digital strategy integrated across multiple channels is the new mandate to neutralize criticism. It’s become more important to transparently tell the company’s story and join the conversation. Research has shown that executives with social CEOs say their CEOs’ social media presence makes them feel inspired (52%), technologically advanced (46%), and proud (41%). Sociability shows that a leader is listening, open to engaging in two-way dialogue with stakeholders, and comfortable with change. And in today’s battle for talent, social CEOs also help to attract and retain employees.
Companies don’t want to be left behind. For example, even in 2013, Scottish fashion brand Lyle & Scott put out a call for a new CEO on Twitter. They linked to a micrositeso people could learn about the brand’s history, what it takes to be a leader, and how to apply.
The company also asked each candidate to produce a Vine video and Pinterest board for the brand. According to the executive recruiter leading the search, the owner of Lyle & Scott wanted “a modern, tech-aware retail CEO who is social media literate. By conducting the search using social media, we automatically select out the dinosaurs.”
While we shouldn’t expect Fortune 500 companies to start recruiting CEOs this way, this example should be a reminder that social media skills have become much more important to the C-suite—and are increasingly sought after. Fortunately, CEOs are expanding their presence on social media to keep up with this change in demand. Our research shows that five significant changes over the past five years have contributed to CEOs’ increased sociability.
The company website is the top destination for CEO communications. Nearly seven in 10 CEOs (68%) have a visible presence on company websites beyond just their name and bio. This represents a two-fold surge in CEO website visibility since 2010 (32%), reflecting the larger trend of companies becoming self-publishers. A good example comes from Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella and how he is featured on their website with video, quotes, a bio, and speeches. Even the classic “About the CEO” description is starting to change from the standard resume-style bio to a more “social bio,” which includes rich and engaging content like Twitter and LinkedIn posts.
Corporate video is fast becoming the new normal for CEOs. CEOs appearing in video, either on the company website or YouTube channel, is three times as high as it was in 2010 (54% and 18%, respectively). Some CEO videos are repurposed clips of CEOs reporting on quarterly earnings and at industry-related events, while others are directed at customers. One CEO appears in a series of videos to address consumer questions regarding a recent company crisis. The CEO of Lufthansa, Carsten Spohr, used video to convey his sorrow over the tragic crash of Germanwings flight 9525 in the French Alps in March. CEOs are smartly recognizing the emotional power and shareability of video in today’s multi-media and distracted world.
LinkedIn was the most popular social network for top executives in 2014. The rate of CEOs using LinkedIn nearly quadrupled since 2010, going from 4% to 22% and reflecting the rising importance of social connectedness. Over 1.7 million CEO-titles now appear on LinkedIn when searching on the site. CEO.com and Domo report that LinkedIn is the “entry network” of choice among CEOs, and particularly Fortune 500 CEOs with only one social network. LinkedIn gives CEOs a chance to promote their thought leadership, attract talent, and serve as Influencers in their industries. It’s also regarded as safer than other social media since those who post on its site cannot do so anonymously. In a way, it is a gated community for professionals.
Newcomer CEOs are quicker to take up social. New CEOs (in office three years or less) are now just as social as those with more than three years at the helm. This rate jumped from 48% in 2012 to 80% in 2014. And this is not simply a product of a CEO’s age; in our audit, new CEOs were only four years younger, on average, than longer-tenured peers. It’s more likely that new CEOs understand from the start that sociability allows them to reach wider audiences, faster.
Women executives are raising their voices through social. We also examined the social media usage of female executives on Fortune’s 2014 Global Most Powerful Women in Business (MPW) list. We found that 76% of them are social — i.e., they are on their company websites (60%), company YouTube channels (40%) and social networks (30%). This high rate is in line with that of the top 50 global company CEOs we analyzed. Women are using these channels to express themselves. As Andrea Learned, a social strategist, wrote in The Huffington Post, “ ‘Going social’ has huge potential for helping women leaders elevate their own voices, add fresh thinking to important conversations, and build trusted community with an impact that makes a world of business difference.” Social media is an important new leadership communications tool that just might improve female representation in the C-Suite.
It’s clear that having a social presence, no matter how small, puts CEOs in a better position to share their stories and connect with a large audience. Plus, there may bereputational benefits that come with being online. We found that CEOs who engage on social media more often are also among the most well regarded.
To avoid being called a dinosaur when it comes to social, here are a few tips for how CEOs can improve their social engagement:
- Listen closely. For those CEOs still hesitant to embrace social media, listening and watching should be the first step. Monitoring the online conversation is a way to gather data on stakeholders and gauge what is being said about their companies. Consider applying the “rule of five”: follow five other people (e.g. colleagues, industry leaders) and five other types of accounts (e.g. trade publications, competitors).
- Choose platforms wisely. For those hesitant to throw themselves out there online, find the right social vehicle..You can start internally or on your corporate website with a short welcoming video on your Careers page. Or you can start with a basic profile on LinkedIn before working your way up to a long-form Influencer post.
- Embrace a “media company mindset.” Take hold of the trend in narrating the company story and use the company website or YouTube channel as a media platform to publish thought leadership or content. CEOs should be featured regularly, even if it is footage from a speaking engagement or a snippet from a town hall meeting.
- Develop a thick skin. No one likes to hear criticism, but you have to learn to take the good with the bad. As CEO, try not to take it personally and tell yourself that you are in this to listen and learn.
- DIY. Do it yourself. Outsourcing sociability might save time but employees can sniff out inauthenticity in a nanosecond. You can get assistance but it is always best to be the editor-in-chief.