Present but Silent: CEOs are the Wallflowers of the Internet, Analysis Finds

With the average American spending more than an hour each day on social media, it’s unsurprising that most CEOs have staked out a patch online. Their level of engagement, however, remains scant, indicating there’s scope for leaders to more deeply exploit the promotional benefits of the Internet—so long as they’re wary of the associated costs and dangers.

Some 92% of CEOs of top publicly-listed companies have some sort of online presence, whether it be a slot on their company’s website, or an account on LinkedIn, Twitter or some other social media platform, according to a new analysis. CEOs of private companies have a smaller presence, at 76%.

The numbers were crunched by public relations firm Weber Shandwick, which examined CEO activities at the top 50 companies in last year’s Fortune 500 rankings, as well as Fortune’s list of the 25 most important private companies. It also performed a separate tech-sector analysis, based on Mercury News’ top 50 CEOs in Silicon Valley.

CEOs were only counted as having their own special piece of company-website territory if their presence went beyond the standard biography page. Almost 90% of CEOs from publicly-listed companies cleared this hurdle, compared to 68% in the private sector.

“ENGAGEMENT ALLOWS CEOS TO HUMANIZE THE CONVERSATION, DEMONSTRATE TRANSPARENCY AND TOUCHABILITY, FORGE CONNECTIONS WITH STAKEHOLDERS AND ACHIEVE A REPUTATIONAL ADVANTAGE.”

But when it came to having an actual presence on social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, participation dropped, with just 50% of publicly-listed company CEOs possessing their own individual account. The findings are broadly similar to separate research conducted in 2015, despite numerous other surveys suggesting the public would trust leaders more if they had a social media presence. Interestingly, private company CEOs seemed to prefer this medium to their listed counterparts, with 58% having their own profile.

The discrepancy perhaps reflects a greater perception of risk, as public company CEOs are legally barred from disclosing information material to their company’s financial performance. They also tend to be more publicly recognizable and can more easily damage a company’s reputation—and share price—with gaffs or unpopular political viewpoints.

A classic example of where things can go wrong occurred in late 2015, when Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes posted a photo on his Instagram account just hours after he’d fired dozens of employees. The picture only showed his hand holding an alcoholic drink, with the message “Cheers to my homies”. The message was later taken down after sacked employees took offense at having their misfortune toasted online.

Active social media use, where CEOs actually engaged with their audience by responding to questions or entering discussions, was found by this latest survey to be even less common. Leaders at both public and private companies had an equal engagement level of 38%, while only 22% of leaders at public companies had engaged in the past 12 months.

Of course, risk levels increase the more you banter with the public: just ask Uber’s Travis Kalanick. Chatting to customers online also takes time and may have to involve some level of consistency so people don’t feel unfavored or left out. That could mean having to pay to hire a social media support team.

Some other interesting findings included:

— More than half of CEOs now appear on some sort of company video, with Silicon Valley chiefs leading the way (65%), followed by public-company leaders (58%) and private-company leaders (52%).

— Around a third (34%) of public company CEOs have a presence on their careers page, compared to 10% for both private and tech CEOs.

— Silicon Valley CEOs are far more likely to be present on social media, at 71%.

— A small number of leaders—3% of public companies and 2% of private—created their very own “CEO website” or blog separate from the company website.

The benefits of engaging more on social media could be worth all the effort, at least according to Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist. “Engagement is the new presence when it comes to CEO sociability,” she said. “It allows CEOs to humanize the conversation, demonstrate transparency and touchability, forge connections with stakeholders and achieve a reputational advantage.”

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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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