Why Do CEOs Suck At Social Media?

Social media is amazing.

You can make friends, learn new things, find new products and change your perspective – all of it from your phone. Yes there are trolls and bots and all kinds of unfortunate nonsense because humans are generally awful, but social media has truly been a game-changing technology. It’s probably the most important advance in communications since the invention of the printing press.

So why don’t CEOs use it?

Ask any CMO or VP of Public Relations about social media and he or she will most likely tell you that it is an important channel for their company. In fact, pretty much every FORTUNE 500 company has an extensive social media presence.

But CEOs are another matter.

A 2016 study found that 60 per cent of FORTUNE 500 CEOs have no media social presence at all. Nada. They are ghosts online.

The excuses for this are obvious – CEOs are busy people and they don’t have time to Instagram a photo of their lunch, and they have lawyers whispering in their ear about the risks of saying anything publicly. ROI on their time spent on social is difficult to measure.

And after all, doing nothing is always an option.

However this also betrays a lack of understanding about the benefits of social media. Look at CEOs who use social media well, people like Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff or Virgin’s Richard Branson, and the true benefits become apparent.

They aren’t always Tweeting. In fact, they use the tools sparingly but with clear effect.

Here are five reasons why I think every CEO should have an authentic social media presence.

  • Shape the Company Brand – Good CEOs often extend their personal brand to the corporate brand. It’s actually the mark of a great leader. What better way to shape their personal and corporate brands than through social media? Why do you know the name of the CEO of Tesla – a car you likely don’t drive – but probably don’t know the name of the CEO of General Motors, Ford or Honda – cars you might very well drive?
  • Inspire the Team – A public face of a company will inspire its employees. It gives them something to be proud of, to rally around. Salesforce’s Benioff does this very well as he speaks to his company’s progressive politics on issues like the environment and wage equity on Twitter.
  • Creates Unmediated Communications Channel – If a CEO needs to speak to her or his audience, there are clear downsides to doing it through the traditional news media. Stories get “torqued” as media outlets relentlessly compete for clicks. A strong social media presence will guarantee that a message is communicated the way the CEO wants it to be communicated, not filtered through someone else’s prism.
  • Puts Credits in the Public Opinion Bank – In this era of income inequality, there is considerable scepticism about CEOs. The fact that a CEO’s average salary is $10.4 million in Canada (200X the average worker’s salary) exacerbates the suspicion and hostility. But think about Richard Branson – yes, he’s a high-profile CEO who lives on his own Caribbean Island, but he also seems like a good dude to people who follow him on social media. His active social accounts have helped him deposit credits in the public opinion bank, which he can draw down against when something goes wrong (and something always goes wrong.) He can reach his audience immediately in the event of a crisis and they are likely to trust what he says.
  • Create Thought Leadership – Yes, thought leadership is hackneyed phrase, but it is something that turns CEOs from followers to leaders. Good leaders stand for something. They have a point of view on things that matter to their audiences. Social media lets you communicate that point of view and influence other people. Look at how Mark Zuckerberg is trying to navigate Facebook through its “fake news” crisis – he’s using Facebook to communicate directly with his audience. Imagine if he had to do that through the New York Times or Fox News…

The core of all good marketing is differentiation. Social media allows CEOs to build a profile and define their personal and corporate brand. There are, of course, risks that accompany using this channel. But the greater risk is doing nothing and having the world pass you by.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is a partner with Bonfire.