The CEO’s Social Media Challenge

social mediaLike it or not, most CEOs are fighting a losing battle when it comes to social media. They are overwhelmed and bewildered. Many have decided to essentially withdraw and leave it to others to figure out.

First the good news: companies are opening their wallets when it comes to social media spending. Budgets are going up faster than almost any other corporate expenditure. In a 2018 survey, US-based chief marketing officers reported that digital marketing expenditures were growing at double-digit rates and predicted that spending on social media alone would capture nearly 25 percent of total marketing budgets by 2023.

Now the bad news: a clear majority of US CEOs have no presence at all on social media, even when postings are prepared by ghost writers. Studies have shown that less than 10 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are personally engaged in social media.

This comes at a time when the public’s interest in transparency and responsible leadership is soaring. In a recent survey we conducted with senior global executives, most expressed a deep and growing concern for their company’s as well as their own personal reputations.  Many believed that the public has turned against them. The number one reason (cited by 63% of respondents): CEOs appear heartless and focused solely on profits. In the same study, three-quarters of respondents believed that the biggest benefit for CEOs having an on-line presence was the ability to gain a trusting followership. In another study, 86% of Americans indicated that they would take their business somewhere else if they believed a company was lacking transparency on social media.

CEOs Shy Away From Social Media

Despite the clarion call for doing more and doing it better, why are only a small fraction of CEOs active on social media? Our research found 3 common refrains:

  • I don’t have enough time. Social media is a time-sink.
  • I don’t know what to say or who to target. The span of interested stakeholders is extensive—customers, employees, regulators, suppliers, business partners, etc. Where do I even start?
  • Social media is personally risky. After all, the more I post the more I am in danger of being attacked.

All of these are valid concerns, not only in the US but around the world. The experience of one CEO we know illustrates how all three of these concerns are inter-related. He decided to create a blog that contained daily entries describing experiences on his tour of European factories. He hoped his postings would be inspiring and informative for employees. To his surprise, some employees set up a competing blog that ridiculed him for staying at fancy hotels and ignoring his “real” job back home. The CEO was angry and embarrassed. After spending an inordinate amount of time trying to “fix” the problems that were created, he decided to never again expose himself this way.

But this would be a mistake. In 2018, over 3.2 billion people regularly accessed social media. And all of them can examine just about everything that is said by you and about you and your company in real time. Messages will get posted. The question is, by whom?  Unless the CEO takes ownership of the social media challenge, the potential damages to personal reputations as well as company admiration are significant. Social media can take a problem and turn it into a crisis and can spin a crisis into a scandal before the week is over!

Chief Reputation Officer

The CEO is the chief reputation officer for the company. While social media will likely not “make” your company, it can “break” you through publicizing, attacking and scandalizing any mistake. And let’s face it, we all make a few. Just as you would never delegate financial stewardship, you cannot pass on the responsibility for personal and company social media strategy to underlings or consultants.

Getting it right requires courage, especially for those who are feeling overwhelmed. We offer stressed CEOs four recommendations:

Set clear objectives. What do you want to achieve with social media? Is your emphasis on product promotion, building trust, or blocking negative actors? The clearer you can be on these objectives the better.

Build competencies for short-term crises and long term positioning. The time to prepare for a scandal is now. Gaming different scenarios and developing organizational muscle memory will help the company dispose of problems and assist its leaders when the crisis hits.

Broaden your perspective. Today, reputations are global. While many of the big players (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) operate around the world, the role of social media in local communities varies enormously. A global approach with standardized messages has to be complemented with localized listening, learning and content.

Start with your employees. For those CEOs who are nervous about going outside, start with your employees. When times get tough, employees will either stir the pot or go out of their way to defend and promote the company.  But they will fight the good fight only if they admire you and respect the company. Our advice: fill up the piggy bank of trust by using social media to engage employees personally and emotionally now. The vacuum will be filled, one way or another.

RelatedWhy CEOs Should Empower Their Employees On Social Media

Allen Morrison
Allen J. Morrison is a professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Morrison previously served as CEO and director-general, senior advisor for global management education and executive education initiatives at Arizona State University. Before joining ASU in 2014, Morrison was professor of global management and the holder of the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Chair for Responsible Leadership in the Maritime Industry at IMD. Professor Morrison was also director of the IMD Global CEO Center, which focuses on the challenges CEOs face while leading their companies in the global economy.

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