Today's my last day at Sun. I'll miss it. Seems only fitting to end on a #haiku.
Financial crisis/Stalled too many customers/ CEO no more.
On February 4, 2010, Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz logged on to his Twitter account and informed the world of his resignation, at the same time nodding to a trend of the moment to tweet Haiku poetry. That Schwartz would choose to end his tenure not with a formal statement to the press but with a casual, hash-tagged update to his "tweeps" was true to form, since he was one of the few Fortune 500 leaders generally recognized as a "social" CEO — that is, comfortable with and capable of using social media.
There are other leaders of multinational corporations who blog, have a Facebook page or Twitter account, or engage with the public using YouTube or their own web sites' video capabilities — but they are few and far between, especially in non-technology industries. The same names tend to be mentioned over and over again: Tony Hsieh (Zappos), Indra Nooyi(PepsiCo), Bill Marriott (Marriott), Paul Levy (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center), and Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks). The fact that the ranks of social CEOs remain so limited is frankly disconcerting. These are the communications vehicles of our time, and surely it's no less vital now than in the past for companies' stakeholders to hear about CEOs' plans and actions.
To gain a better understanding of how top business leaders are communicating externally in this age of 24/7 media, hyperlinks and 12-hour news cycles, Weber Shandwick audited the publicly visible activities of the CEOs of the 50 largest firms (by revenue) in the world across the year 2009. Among the leaders we followed were 20 in the U.S., 27 in Europe, 9 in Asia Pacific, and 4 in Latin America. (The numbers add up to 60, owing to the turnover of 10 CEO posts within the year). Our findings were released today.
So how social or unsocial are these chieftains? We found that only 36 percent of our largest company's CEOs communicate through company websites or social media channels in any way (e.g., by posting messages, speeches, or letters on company websites; posts on company-affiliated blogs; videos or podcasts on company websites or company YouTube channels; or maintaining accounts on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn). When CEOs do go social, and venture beyond the standard shareholder letter, they are most likely to post statements or messages on their company websites (28 percent), next most likely to be featured in video or podcasts on their corporate websites or company YouTube channels (18 percent) and least likely, (less than 10 percent) to use Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
This is not because leading CEOs are seeking to stay under cover and out of sight in this down economy and anti-business climate. A full 93 percent of them in the same period were quoted in the business press, delivered keynote speeches, and/or participated in business school forums. Rather, they chose traditional media for their communications — and avoided the additional opportunity that new social media could give them to narrate their company's story.
So what gives? In truth, there are rational arguments for global CEOs not to be more social. Time is scarce, and may seem better spent with customers and employees. Social media has an imprecise and unproven return on investment. Legal counsel tends to caution against off-the-cuff statements of any sort. And anyone who seems to court "celebrity CEO" status takes a risk.
On top of these, there is the fear factor, a reluctance to undertake the unfamiliar and open oneself up to transparency and criticism, a factor which just might be the most important reason behind a CEO's reluctance to go social. Forrester CEO George Colony, a social CEO himself and thought leader on the topic, commented as such in July to a response on his blog:
As time has passed, I have come to see fear as the greatest barrier to overcome — whether it's in my decision-making, communication, tennis game, or in the setting of strategic direction. To fear feedback from customers ... is to ignore the most relevant raw material for improving your products and services. Sure, it's not nice to get negative reviews — but CEOs are paid to seek out and understand the brutal truths.
Yet there are many solid reasons why CEOs should engage online. With 1.96 billion Internet users around the world, CEOs should be where people are watching, reading, chatting. and listening. CEOs should set the pace and embrace connectivity with customers, communities, advocates, new talent, and others online.
Perhaps most important, through something as simple as a video on their corporate web site or a welcome letter on their careers page, CEOs can give their companies a much needed human face and basis for connection. As CEO Michael Hyatt of Thomas Nelson Publishing told corporate blogging maven Debbie Weil, "I think as a CEO, if your responsibility is to create visibility for your company, if you're responsible for networking, trying to connect and build a brand, then there's no more effective way to do it, I don't think, than social media."
Getting social needs to be part of your corporate reputation management program, and it's easy to put a toe in the water. A few tips can facilitate your CEO's move from unsocial to social:
- Identify best practices of your competition and best-in-class communicators. Then establish and stretch your own comfort zone.
- Start with the fundamentals (e.g., videos or photos online). Inventory and aggregate existing CEO communications for repurposing online.
- Simulate or test drive social media participation. Understand what you're getting into before you go live.
- Decide upfront how much time you can commit to being Social. Colony says start small; keep it "Social Light." One visible CEO states on his company web site that he would like to answer more questions online but needs to spend his limited time running the business.
- Accept the fact that getting social needs to be part of your corporate reputation management program.
Not everyone has to have a personal blog or tweet haiku. A CEO will never be able to spend much of his or her day engaging in social media. But a CEO should at least have a presence online. Quoting again from Michael Hyatt, "too many CEOs see it as an add-on, as an appendix, as something that they don't have time for." But that's ducking the issue, he thinks. "You've got to see it as an integral part of what you've been hired to do."
Leslie Gaines-Ross is chief reputation strategist at public relations consultancy Weber Shandwick. Her most recent book is Corporate Reputation: 12 Steps to Safeguarding and Recovering Reputation.