CEOs Finally Reckon with Social Media

When Marco Rubio delivered a critically acclaimed Republican Party rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union message on Tuesday, the U.S. Senator from Florida grabbed a small bottle of Poland Springs water for an emergency gulp, in full view of the rolling cameras.

And not long after his speech, in what called “a genius move of self-awareness,” Rubio tweeted a simple picture of the bottle. It was retweeted 1,400 times in seven minutes and more than double that number in an hour.

Thus did Rubio’s legend grow, via social media, in a small way. And thus did he greatly diminish the potential for others to leverage Twitter against him.

There’s a lesson here for chiefs of SMEs as well as Fortune 500 companies: Social media is here to stay as a key influencer of public opinion about companies and brands. Actually, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr et al. have become important and often instant shapers of the opinions of a number of publics, including consumers, shareholders, employees and suppliers.

Clearly, more company chiefs are recognizing this reality and embracing it – or at least confronting it. A survey by last spring found that 19 Fortune 500 CEOs had registered for Twitter, 38 were on Facebook and 129 had LinkedIn profiles. Six of them even contributed to blogs.

But at the same time, that meant only 4 percent of these CEOs were on Twitter, versus 34 percent of the U.S. population that has registered on the service. And only 8 percent were on Facebook, compared with more than half of Americans.

Why the disconnect? Clearly, the caution of business chiefs about personally engaging social media is understandable. They’re supposed to have marketing people for that. Thumbing out a tweet can take considerable executive time that’s best applied elsewhere. And on and on.

The irrelevance of social media seems to be a particular conviction of SME owners. Smaller businesses and B2B companies each were less likely to engage in social media than bigger concerns, according to a 2012 survey by Zeno Group. Certainly no type of business chief is more pressed for time than an entrepreneur; and business-to-business chiefs largely figure that social media is more of a consumer-facing pursuit.

Still, the stakes for business leaders ignoring social media – or failing to capitalize on its capabilities – are becoming increasingly clear. “While the potential of social media seems immense, the inherent risks create uncertainty and unease,” as the new issue of McKinsey Quarterly puts it.

And while acknowledging that “capitalizing on the transformational power of social media while mitigating its risks calls for a new type of leader,” McKinsey emphasizes that tackling social media effectively actually calls for “qualities that have long been a staple of effective leadership, such as strategic creativity, authentic communication, and the ability to deal with a corporation’s social and political dynamics and to design an agile and responsive organization.”

Much like previous imperatives to institutionalize quality in an organization, or to create an engaging corporate culture, or to globalize strategically, or to deal with sustainability challenges, addressing social media looms as a new mandate for just about every business owner and chief executive in this hyper-digitized era.

Whether they want to or not.




Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.