The Accessible, Accountable Executive: Evolving Expectations for the C-Suite
Some executives have been making an impact on social media for the better part of the past decade. In 2012, Richard Branson was one of the first LinkedIn Influencers, former GE CEO Jeff Immelt sent his first tweet that same year, and AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes used Twitter to share live updates after Flight 8501 went missing in 2014. While these are a few examples of C-suite executives or founder CEOs who have long engaged their employees and customers via social channels, we’re reaching a critical juncture where expectations for accessibility and transparency have increased for all business leaders–not just those who are more comfortable in the spotlight.
This is partially because, in the war for talent, employees want to work for approachable leaders. As early as 2012, a BRANDFog survey 1 found that 78% of people prefer to work for a company whose leadership is active on social media, while past Edelman research 2 points to the payoff of doing so, with 75% of top-rated CEOs on Glassdoor using social channels. Consumers are also increasingly looking to brands–and their executives–to lead where government has failed. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer 3 found that business is more trusted than government and that 64% of people believe CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it. Further, 56% have no respect for CEOs who remain silent on important issues.
These expectations for businesses to lead are not only tied to a company’s reputation, but also to its bottom line. The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand 4 study found the majority of consumers–regardless of market, age bracket or income level–are now belief-driven buyers. More than half (54%) believe it’s easier to get brands to address social problems than to get government to take action, and nearly two in three will now choose or boycott a brand based on its stance on societal issues.
Against this landscape, there’s mounting pressure for CEOs to lend their voices to social issues. Gone are the days when stakeholders only expected to hear from chief executives on quarterly earnings calls or at employee all-hands meetings. At the same time, digital communications have both shifted how executives communicate with their stakeholders and increased the pace with which executives are expected to share their perspectives. Executives’ social posts are now seen as a proxy for an official statement and quoted in media as such.
As we enter this period of increased Brand Democracy 5 , where consumers turn to brands as their champions, the number of active executives on social media will continue to rise. But perhaps more importantly, the content executives share in 2019 will have even more measurable business implications. Social media can no longer be merely a fun passion project for top executives; it’s something executives will be accountable for–particularly for those executives at publicly traded companies. Their social media use must be treated with the same rigor and weight as more traditional communications channels–with the proper checks and balances in place to ensure individuals aren’t getting out ahead of the company or sharing market-moving information. Companies have traditionally had mechanisms in place for drafting CEO quotes for official press releases or media inquiries, vetting executives’ public appearances and drafting their speeches. Social media cannot be treated any differently; companies must learn how to balance executive authenticity and responsiveness with mechanisms that help safeguard company reputation and minimize security risks.
This year, we saw executive social media use make headlines–for both good and bad reasons. Numerous executives used social media to lend their voices to societal issues like immigration, family separation at the border, DACA and gun control. Those who did so responsibly aligned with their government relations and communications teams before speaking out. On the other hand, we saw examples such as Deciem CEO Brandon Truaxe’s erratic management of the company’s Instagram account 6 contribute to his ousting. We also saw what was likely history’s most expensive tweet when Elon Musk claimed he had secured enough funding to take Tesla private at $420 a share. His tweet sent shares rising 7 , confused investors and attracted attention from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which later fined him $20 million for sharing misinformation. They also fined Tesla $20 million for not having the necessary controls and procedures in place to oversee Musk’s public communications.
There is no longer a dividing line between a CEO’s personal and official social media use. When you become the face of your company and its top ambassador, your social media posts become both an opportunity to humanize the brand and a potential liability for the broader organization—the impact, positive or negative, can be significant. The payoff for a company that has a truly social CEO can be great, but it can also be a risk for an organization, including being held financially accountable for their executive’s personal missteps online.
Effective executive social media programs require new levels of coordination and integration of resources across an organization. Most often, this means bringing together the corporate and executive communications functions within digital marketing and customer service teams. At some companies, legal, government relations, employee communications and investor relations are also represented in a CEO social working group. And because most CEOs communicate in data and performance numbers, successful CEO social programs must also expand beyond standard communications KPIs like impressions to deeper tracking of analytics and data points that speak to business impact.
The executives and their teams who are doing this well are using their personal social accounts for talent acquisition, business development and customer retention. Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff has said that the vast majority of people he hires interact with him online before applying 8 . T-Mobile CEO John Legere uses social media to hear directly from customers and promote upcoming perks and giveaways in his weekly #SlowCookerSunday Facebook Live. Our team worked with PayPal to create a Facebook Watch show and podcast for CEO Dan Schulman to increase awareness of PayPal’s commitment to values-driven leadership.
Those on the cutting edge are not authoring your standard tweet or LinkedIn article; they’re creating authentic, real-time ephemeral content or investing in serialized content. CEOs are bringing audiences behind the scenes at industry events and office visits using Instagram or Facebook stories. They’re creating podcasts, Facebook Watch Shows, IGTV or YouTube series. They’re inviting transparency through Ask Me Anythings on new platforms–not just on Reddit, but via Instagram Question Stickers and LinkedIn videos.
We tend to see the online success of one executive at a company generate interest from other C-suite leaders and subject matter experts. In fact, we’re seeing more regional and business unit leaders join social media, as well as an influx of CHROs and CFOs. Introducing more company executives on social channels requires greater editorial and channel planning to ensure the executives aren’t cannibalizing each other’s news but rather communicating in authentic ways based on their personal expertise. We work with clients to determine how to best coordinate across executive teams and balance these new levels of access to their principals.
Having socially accessible CEOs and senior executives is not only a growing expectation of employees and customers, but of boards as well. “Responsible social media use will become a key metric by which CEO candidates are evaluated moving forward as executives’ digital footprints are not only an extension of their CVs, but a summary of their thought leadership perspectives and stances on social issues. By that same token, those communications and marketing professionals who support executives or public figures online will also be judged by the strategy and responsible management of those channels.
Building and managing executive social channels is now a critical business function that all companies must embrace. These programs are no longer just about personal branding or celebrity; they have tangible business implications and are critical to real-time reputation management, increasing authenticity, building credibility and engaging both customers and employees. In other words, creating business impact.
1 “2012 CEO, Social Media & Leadership Survey” BRANDFog. 2012. Source: http://www.brandfog.com/CEOSocialMediaSurvey/BRANDfog_2012_CEO_Survey.pdf
2 “Why CEOs Need Social Media” Edelman. December 2016. Source: https://medium.com/edelman/why-ceos-need-social-media-59ccb31455b
3 “2018 Edelman Trust Barometer” Edelman. February 2018. Source: http://cms.edelman.com/sites/default/files/2018-02/2018_Edelman_Trust_Barometer_Global_Report_FEB.pdf
4 “Edelman Earned Brand 2018” Edelman. October 2018. Source: https://www.edelman.com/earned-brand
5 “The New Brand Democracy” Edelman. October 2018. Source: https://www.edelman.com/post/the-new-brand-democracy
6 “Concluding a Wild Year on Instagram, Deciem’s Founder Brandon Truaxe Has Been Ousted.” Jezebel. October 2018. Source: https://jezebel.com/concluding-a-wild-year-on-instagram-deciems-founder-br-1829733791
7 “A Brief History of Elon Musk’s Market-Moving Tweets.” Wired. August 2018. Source: https://www.wired.com/story/elon-musk-twitter-stock-tweets-libel-suit/
8 “Closing Keynote with Spencer Rascoff and Pattie Sellers.” #FacebookRagan Leadership Communications Summit. February 2017. Source: goo.gl/jkS4YV
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