Should the CEO be social?


Chief executives may not want to be on social media but their people, customers and shareholders sure wish they were there.

Numerous reports confirm that a social CEO positively impacts perceptions of trust, reputation and engagement.

According to surveys:

  • Weber Shandwick – in 2013 found 76% of executives want the CEO to be social, up to 81% in 2015.
  • Brandfog – two thirds of customer’s trust companies more if the CEO is social.
  • Statista – 82% of employees think a social CEO helps shape reputation.

For me these findings raise two important questions:

  1. Why are social CEOs viewed positively?
  2. Why are CEOs largely absent from social?


Why are social CEOs viewed positively?

Leadership exists in a context; we know different times require different leadership styles. A great turnaround CEO, for example, may not succeed in a stable business environment.

With three billion using the internet and over two billion people using social media (and growing), a social CEO may be a CEO for her or his time.

This will become more not less important as mobile growth continues, with predictions it will push internet penetration to 50% of the world by 2016.

CEOs who ‘get’ social understand global interconnectivity impacts every aspect of business and it’s got nothing to do with age.

We’re used to getting information with a click and expect instant results, a social CEO doesn’t waste time debating if this is right or wrong but translates those expectations into business-as-usual practices.

Connected CEOs, as case in point

Comparing how companies handle business communication is a great example of this mindset difference in action.

In 2013 Buffer was hacked. For a software company, this could have spelled disaster.

Instead, with his team, CEO Joel Gascoigne came straight out and front footed the crisis.

Although only a few customers were impacted, all customers were informed of the hack before they knew it had taken place and the company took the message public, beyond its customer base. A traditional company might have sought to contain the message.

Gascoigne explained in plain words what happened, apologised, gave customers actionable advice and provided regular, detailed updates on how it was being fixed. The team, known by name, talked constantly to customers across all social media networks and on their blog.

People loved it and Buffer became even more popular.

Compare this with Applebee’s approach, documented by Stollar.

That same year, waitress Chelsea Welch was fired after she posted a photo on Reddit of a bill on which a pastor had crossed out the 18% tip and written “I give God 10% why do you get 18”.

Applebee ignored the outrage at first but once negative sentiment became overwhelming put up a legalistic statement (in the wrong part of their Facebook page) claiming guests’ information was private.

This was a big mistake given the company had previously published a customer compliment and social memory soon retrieved and reposted it.

Despite 20,000 negative comments Applebee never put up a human face to the crisis, deleted and hid posts; blocked, tagged and argued with users and became increasingly legalistic.

The CEO remained absent even after the company was boycotted nationally, impacting profits.  

By comparison with Buffer, this left a very sour taste.

One CEO understood that customers are people who are social and whose conversations are shared globally at light speed in ways that have a tangible business impact. That doesn’t go well with faceless, arms-length legalese.


Why are leaders absent?

There is growing awareness of the importance of social media among senior executives but participation is still low and there are strong differences about whether CEOs should use it.

Steve Tobak, for example, believes that there’s no business case for social media and that CEOs can do themselves more harm than good if they mouth off.

Mark Schaeffer says having an executive embrace social can be an advantage but that most don’t and shouldn’t have to – leave it to those who love it is his advice.

On the other hand, Forbes’ William Aruda says a social CEO will thrive because social is the most effective way to create emotional connections and relationships with the right people. 

Social media is not a panacea but it has significant impact on every area of business. In my experience, a lack of understanding about the value of social (myths vs realities) contributes to a CEO culture in which social is viewed with scepticism and the idea is reinforced that running companies and negotiating with customers can be done in a vacuum. It can’t.

Lack of time is another reason CEOs stay away and there’s little doubt they are extremely busy; but so are customers, stakeholders, suppliers and people. It’s about what kind of time counts?

Right now there’s a perception that time on social is wasted rather than well spent. Instead social can be collaborative, creative and generate productivity.

The advantages of being a social CEO

I find it frustrating that social is reduced to this transactional level (whether the CEO should post or tweet), which is where much of the debate sits right now.

Being social has broader advantages and can help a CEO with:

  1. Strategic development (corporate and personal)
  2. Executive team development
  3. Risk management
  4. Leveraging opportunities
  5. Creating an engaged and productive culture

Strategic development

The CEO in collaboration with her or his leadership team is responsible for developing corporate strategy.

This is often cited as a reason to keep CEOs away from social (“they’ve got more important things to do than talk to people”) but I believe this is a key reason to plunge them in deep.

Social impacts strategy formation and can also contribute to creating an engaged and productive workforce, responsible for implementing that strategy.

It’s hard to explain the synergies that emerge from engaging a social ecosystem unless you’re in it. Algorithms connect you with people and vital pieces of information that you do not necessarily know exist and that impact the way that you think.

Wire a vision-oriented, strategic brain to such an ecosystem and sparks fly. This is one of social’s most valuable contributions.

Team development

The CEO leads a team of executives, each of whose roles is being deeply impacted by social.

For example:  

  1. Chief Operating Officer – McKinsey says business success is increasingly tied to the quality of customer experience, 71% of consumers who have a good social media service experience recommend a brand.
  2. Chief Financial Officer – CFOs must be digitally literate and understand how to assess strategic opportunities and risks across geographies and in real time, using real time data.
  3. General Counsel – General Counsel must understand legislative and regulatory requirement. In the US in 2013 The Securities and Exchange Commission said companies could use social media to announce key information in compliance with Regulation Fair Disclosure (Regulation FD), in Australia, the ASX updated Guidance Note 8 with respect to social media monitoring, Australia has an ASX-first approach.
  4. Chief Human Resources Officer – Employers must be aware of laws for collecting information from social media during pre-employment, how social is used for recruitment, how to create an enforceable social media policy and who owns social media accounts.
  5. Chief Marketing Officer – Digital and social impact research, search, reputation, brand, conversion and sales.
  6. Chief Information OfficerAccording to Forrester, technology has become a business driver and enabler, not just a support function.

At minimum this must be understood, but as steward of the company, a CEO should be thinking about how to leverage opportunities.

Legal obligations – risk

If a tweet can cause the share price to plummet then managing it is not the responsibility of the marketing intern.

I’ve written extensively about why CEOs need to understand the risk associated with social media, whether managing trademark obligations or monitoring networks to ensure markets trade fully informed.


Of course the main reason to understand social is because of the long-term benefits for brand, sales, customer service, loyalty and product development.

This includes:

  1. Increased brand recognition.
  2. Higher loyalty – 53% of those who follow brands in social are more loyal to them.  
  3. Higher lead-to-close rate – 100% higher than outbound marketing, according to HubSpot. According to ‘LinkedIn 101 – becoming a social CEO’, 43% of marketers generate leads from LinkedIn, 82% find social a key source of lead generation and once the lead has become an opportunity, social sales professionals are 51% more likely to achieve their quota.
  4. Decreased marketing costs – for 84% of marketers.
  5. Improved customer insights – according to PWC social listening trumps research.


Grant Thornton says around 40% of employees would like their organisation to embrace social and McKinsey says that it can deliver productivity benefits of 20-25 %, yet this is not yet well understood by CEOs.

Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) like Yammer allow a CEO to talk directly to staff across geographies, driving engagement and innovation.

Gartner Inc says that while social networks will become primary channels for work-related decisions, 80% of social business efforts may not achieve the intended benefits due to inadequate leadership.

This is probably the most important reason CEOs should set aside personal views on social, broaden their understanding of its benefits and risks and find ways to meet customers, suppliers and people where they already are – in social networks.

Dionne Lew is the CEO of the Social Executive®, an advisor to boards and senior executives on digital and social media rated in the top 1% for global community influence by Kred. Her latest book The Social Executive – Why Leaders Need Social Media and How It’s Good For Business (Wiley) is now available.

Dionne Lew is the CEO of the Social Executive, an advisor to boards and senior executives on digital and social media rated in the top 1% for global community influence by Kred. Her latest book, The Social Executive, is now available.

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