• by Leslie Gaines-Ross

    When it comes to social media, today's chief executives have made a remarkable transition over the past five years. A recent analysis by my firm, Weber Shandwick, found that 80 per cent of the chief executives of the world's largest 50 companies are engaged online and on social media. 

    The results show that chief executive "sociability" has more than doubled since we began tracking the social activities of chief executives in 2010.


    Chief executives are considered "social" if he or she has a public and verifiable social network account on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Weibo or Mixi; engages on the company website through messages, pictures or video; appears in a video on the company YouTube or YouKu channel; or writess an external blog.



    Being social was once considered too risky, because chief executives feared that saying the wrong thing online would draw out antagonists, dissatisfied customers and disgruntled employees who could threaten the company's reputation. Now, having a digital strategy integrated across multiple channels is the new mandate to neutralize criticism. It's become more important to tell the company's story transparently and join the conversation. Sociability shows that a leader is listening, open to engaging in two-way dialogue with stakeholders, and comfortable with change. And in today's battle for talent, social chief executives attract and retain employees.

    Companies don't want to be left behind. For example, even in 2013, Scottish fashion brand Lyle & Scott put out a call for a new chief executive on Twitter. The company also asked each candidate to produce a Vine video and Pinterest board for the brand. According to the executive recruiter leading the search, the owner of Lyle & Scott wanted "a modern, tech-aware retail chief executive who is social media literate. By conducting the search using social media, we automatically select out the dinosaurs."

    While we shouldn't expect Fortune 500 companies to start recruiting chief executives this way, this example should be a reminder that social media skills are increasingly sought after. Fortunately, chief executives are expanding their presence on social media to keep up with this change in demand. Our research shows that five significant changes over the past five years have contributed to chief executives' increased sociability.

    The company website is the top destination for chief executive communications. Nearly 70 per cent of chief executives have a visible presence on company websites beyond just their name and bio. Microsoft's new chief executive Satya Nadella is featured on their website with video, quotes, a bio and speeches. Even the classic "About the chief executive" description is starting to change from the standard resume-style bio to a more "social bio," which includes rich and engaging content like Twitter and LinkedIn posts.


    Corporate video is fast becoming the new normal for chief executives. chief executives appearing in video is three times as high as it was in 2010. Some chief executive videos are repurposed clips of chief executives reporting on quarterly earnings and at industry-related events, while others are directed at customers. The chief executive of Lufthansa, Carsten Spohr, used video to convey his sorrow over the tragic crash of Germanwings flight 9525 in the French Alps in March. chief executives are smartly recognizing the emotional power and shareability of video in today's multimedia and distracted world.

    LinkedIn was the most popular social network for top executives in 2014. The rate of chief executives using LinkedIn rose from 4 per cent to 22 per cent and reflected the rising importance of social connectedness. Over 1.7 million chief executive titles now appear on LinkedIn when searching on the site. LinkedIn gives chief executives a chance to promote their thought leadership, attract talent and serve as influencers in their industries. It's also regarded as safer than other social media since those who post on its site cannot do so anonymously. In a way, it is a gated community for professionals.


    Newcomer chief executives are quicker to take up social media. chief executives in office three years or less are now just as social as those with more than three years at the helm. This rate jumped from 48 per cent in 2012 to 80 per cent in 2014. And this is not simply a product of a chief executive's age; in our audit, new chief executives were only four years younger, on average, than longer-tenured peers. It's more likely that new chief executives understand from the start that sociability allows them to reach wider audiences, faster.

    Women executives are raising their voices through social media. We found that 76 per cent of Fortune's 2014 Global Most Powerful Women in Business are active on social media. As Andrea Learned, a social strategist, wrote in The Huffington Post, " 'Going social' has huge potential for helping women leaders elevate their own voices, add fresh thinking to important conversations, and build trusted community with an impact that makes a world of business difference." Social media is an important new leadership communications tool that just might improve female representation in the C-Suite.


    It's clear that having a social presence, no matter how small, puts chief executives in a better position to share their stories and connect with a large audience. To avoid being called a dinosaur when it comes to social, here are a few tips for how chief executives can improve their social engagement:

    Listen closely. For those chief executives still hesitant to embrace social media, listening and watching should be the first step. Monitoring the online conversation is a way to gather data on stakeholders and gauge what is being said about their companies. Consider applying the "rule of five": follow five other people (colleagues, industry leaders) and five other types of accounts (trade publications, competitors).

    Choose platforms wisely. For those hesitant to throw themselves out there online, find the right social vehicle. You can start internally or on your corporate website with a short welcoming video on your Careers page. Or you can start with a basic profile on LinkedIn before working your way up to a long-form Influencer post.

    Embrace a "media company mindset." Take hold of the trend in narrating the company story and use the company website or YouTube channel as a media platform to publish thought leadership or content. chief executives should be featured regularly, even if it is footage from a speaking engagement or a snippet from a town hall meeting.

    Develop a thick skin. No one likes to hear criticism, but you have to learn to take the good with the bad. As chief executive, try not to take it personally and tell yourself that you are in this to listen and learn.

    Do it yourself. Outsourcing sociability might save time but employees can sniff out inauthenticity in a nanosecond. You can get assistance but it is always best to be the editor-in-chief.

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