PharmExec Blog

Should CEOs Use Social Media?

Yes, writes Peter Houston, but you don’t have to do it all yourself.

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Peter Houston

You probably have bigger calls on your time, but have you given much thought to social media? Not in the abstract corporate communications sense, in a you-the-CEO sense? There has been a flurry of reports over the last six months about the C-suite’s engagement with social media. Some hail the arrival of the social CEO, others ask “Where are they all?”

The cheerleaders for CEO participation say it makes total sense for corporate leadership to take to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest to spread the good news — or fight the bad news — about their businesses. While it might be tempting to leave social media to the PR and marketing folks, you could be missing a trick. BRANDFog, promoting social media for CEOs, says in its 2012 CEO, Social Media & Leadership Survey that 82 percent of employees are more likely to trust a business whose leadership communicates openly through social media.

IBM’s Global CEO survey concurs: the best performing companies are “30 percent more likely to identify openness – characterized by greater use of social media platforms – as a key influence on their organizations.”

The IBM study, based on 1,700 face-to-face interviews with CEOs and public sector leaders from around the world, explores how corporate leadership is responding to the complexity of what IBM calls the connected economy — increasingly interconnected organisations, markets, societies and governments. It highlights the importance of social media in communicating with both employees and customers. Finding that 16 percent of the CEOs surveyed use social media to communicate with customers, it trumpets expectations of a threefold increase in adoption of social media channels in the coming five years.

Writing on Forbes.com mid January , the lead for Weber Shandwick’s digital practise, Chris Perry,  accepts without question the business logic behind the growth in executive support for social media. He sees growth in the number of social CEOs “to present an authentic face, get closer to customers, engage employees” and presents the findings of his own company’s Socializing Your CEO 2013  survey to cement the case. The Weber Shandwick study says 66 percent of CEOs at the world’s top 50 companies engage online. This compares with just 36 percent in 2010 when Weber Shandwick first conducted an analysis of CEO social engagement.

Do Social CEOs tweet?

Yes, but don’t expect to see too many personal tweets or status updates from your fellow captains of industry. According to the Socializing Your CEO study, only 18 percent of the world’s largest company CEOs have their own social network pages.

Brandfog looks closer at Twitter: Although 61% of Fortune 500 brands were engaging with customers via Twitter, less than 2.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs were actively participating on the world’s favourite microblogging network. And while the numbers are a little different, this lack of personal participation is echoed in a joint study from CEO.com and business intelligence firm DOMO. Pitching the use of social media by the general population at 50 percent for Facebook and 37 percent for Twitter, it notes that among Fortune 500 CEOs Facebook usage is only 7.6 percent and just 4 percent for Twitter.

However, the CEO.com/DOMO study reports one social CEO hotspot  – senior executive participation on Linked in is ahead of everyone else – 26 percent versus 20.15 percent. And this statistic maybe hints at one reason for the reticence of high-profile corporate leaders to engage fully on public social media forums. LinkedIn’s “Professional’s Only” ethos offers a safer environment for senior executives where connections, and conversations, can be better controlled. This is in direct contrast to open networks where high-profile executives fear what Weber Shandwick’s Perry describes as “personal attacks, disclosure issues and media scrutiny”.

Perry thinks these, plus the obvious time pressures, are the reasons that executive personal pages are so noticeable by their absence. But he can resolve the apparent contradiction between this lack of personal participation and the assertion that CEO’s are embracing social. An increasing number of CEOs are choosing to perform their “spokesperson-in-chief” role through their company’s social media pages and portals.

“CEOs understand they must be a leading voice with those who follow their company pages, without necessarily amassing and engaging a network of followers on personal pages,” Perry writes on Forbes.com.

So while it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing a Twitterstorm from Big Pharma’s leading lights anytime soon, can we expect to see more Pharma leaders on company pages and YouTube channels? Number one in Paul Tunnah’s New Year Pharmaphorum post on emerging trends in Pharma communications is to “Put a face on your senior execs”. He expects this year to introduce senior Pharma executives presenting their views on a wide range of issues, presenting “the human face of pharma.”

If you have been feeling bad about neglecting the Twitter or Facebook accounts you set up for yourself 18 months back, you can take some comfort from the fact that you’re not alone among your C-Suite peers. But maybe it’s time to reacquaint yourself with the social media basics; Corporate Communications could be knocking at your door any day to help them get followers, likes or to turn you into a YouTube sensation.

Peter Houston is former Group Content Director for Advanstar Pharma Science. He is now an independent media consultant and founder of Flipping Pages.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted February 14, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    The trust factor, not only with the employees but with partners and stakeholders of the company, would go up multifold when a CEO communicates openly through #social tools. What Weber describes looks a true concern and I have personally heard it mentioned by many. But I suppose with more experimentation and with time they will devise ways to hedge as benefits to risk ratio favours going forward with #social tools in an open way. Good post. Thanks.

  2. Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I anticipate this issue to be of priority for companies looking to forge new paths in creating effective crisis communication. How do you rebuild a trustful reputation? Start with the head honcho and his willingness to be transparent. Self-disclosure can be a very powerful thing, especially concerning someone who usually commands the attention of everyone in the room. I say go for it, CEOs, but I doubt many will be the ones directly communicating via such mediums. The guess is that proxies will be well-used in these sorts of seemingly intrepid initiatives.

  3. Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Social sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google + allow CEOs to become more social, provide transparency for customers into the company. The more CEOs interact using social media, better are the chances of building trust with the costumers. CEOs who are unknown to the social media platforms can look out for companies organizing digital marketing conferences for CEOs and management.

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