Twitter for CEOs: a personal branding opportunity (but slippery when wet)

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Over the last few years many CEOs of business enterprises have used social media (especially Twitter) as a platform for what has come to be known as ‘personal branding’. Sure, a few of them were ‘brands’ (in a positive way) long before social media came into the picture. Platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn have offered them a stage to share their ideas, company updates, work and values. Their presence on social media has extended their reach. Some have persisted with the usage, being consistently visible on such platforms, while a majority use it sparingly or not at all – pretty much like how common folks use such platforms.

Each major platform – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has its own unique characteristics. An active presence and usage of those depends on the end objectives and the mindset of the CEO. Some, like Bill Gates go beyond just social media updates to actively build an online property of their own. Some may choose to restrict themselves to LinkedIn posting inspirational updates or articles while some others may prefer to tweet. The key is to play to the strengths of the medium and marry it with personal objectives.  For example, Bill Gates’ Instagram feed uses the visual character of the medium well, while the LinkedIn feed is to post videos, long form articles, share useful links and so on.

Business leaders may have had different reasons for getting on to social media and may approach it from different objectives & mindsets – so they’d be in a better to position to determine whether it has been effective for them or not. As a user, one has observed several different styles; there is no one right approach as it is all depends on personal preferences.  

The two broad approaches:

Occasional or regular one-way broadcast, little or no engagement with users: very often this style is adopted by celebrities and business leaders with view to simply have a presence on Twitter. It may very well suit a celebrity status to ‘keep a distance’ from the general public, keep the mystique going and convey the ‘I am at another level altogether’ message subtly or otherwise. Business leaders too take this approach and meets the objectives just fine. There are no major downsides to this approach and one can understand the choice made. However, it’s perhaps not the best way to use a ‘social’ platform. Tim Cook of Apple uses Twitter to post company updates, product launches, CSR initiatives and so on. The timeline presents him as an evangelist of the Apple way and gives a glimpse into causes he cares about.

Active sharing of personal views, thoughts, useful links, company updates with selective, genuine engagement: very few do this and do it well. On the plus side, it projects a real, credible, multi-faceted persona on social media. In real life too we are likely to have several interests beyond work and projecting a similar persona on social media is welcome. In my view, a good example of this would be Anand Mahindra, Chairman of the $21 billion Mahindra Group. His use of the medium is quite masterly and is quite a playbook to emulate for other CEOs. The group companies also use his reach and influence to tease or announce new products, ad campaigns and more.

Back to the basics: the do’s and don’ts

Is it mandatory to be present on social media at all? The short answer is no. Businesses survive without an active social media presence for their CEO. Tim Cook took to Twitter only in 2013 while many others completely avoid the platform. However, NOT capitalising on the positive aspects of the platform could be a missed opportunity for a large number of enterprises.

As with everything else, there are pros & cons to using Twitter. Once you are on a public platform, it is an invitation for the general public to react on your updates. Some of the reactions could be extremely negative, abusive, petty and the CEO should have the stomach to accept such in their timeline. Aside from that, a few broad pointers:

1. Have a plan: jumping headlong into the world of Twitter without a plan can cause more harm than good. For example, CEOs can decide that they will ONLY share URLs of authentic news items pertaining to their business domain or interests and nothing more – no views, no opinions or current affairs. Some others may mix it up with personal views, company updates, fluffy feel-good videos (which have nothing to do with their business) and so on. Choose a style which you are comfortable with personally.

2. Impulsive reaction? Think thrice before you tweet: the world has always had ‘camps’. Mac vs PC, Man United vs Arsenal, political affiliations, jazz vs everything else and so on. Despite belonging to one such, we got along with everyone else. Unfortunately the digital world which we live in has amplified such differences and almost any topic, especially politics, can result in an ‘us vs them’ debate. Sometimes, it might be in the DNA of the CEO to take a firm political stand. In such cases, he or she must be strong enough to face backlash and name calling. Not everyone has a stomach for such. Also, we live in a world where we simply react to a headline or news summary summary without trying to ascertain facts. Tweets based on such have a potential to backfire. The chairperson and managing director of Biocon Limited, apologised recently for her reactions to a news item. Her original tweet on that topic and the reactions which followed are a classic case of CEOs being better off taking a pause and re-think before succumbing to that urge to tweet. As we have seen repeatedly, there is no delete button on the internet, even after not-so-sagacious comments have been deleted. In this context, one should have the ability to foresee potential trouble (it’s not easy) and avoid sharing or commenting on topics which can be divisive.

3. Don’t fake it: I have come across a few CEOs who try to imitate other social media stars especially by way of sharing motivational sayings, jaw dropping statistics or engaging videos.  

4. Mixing fun with serious is good but watch out: if a CEO chooses to opt for the ‘mixing the light hearted with serious’ kind of tone, sharing inane WhatsApp forwards or memes may not always hit the sweet spot. It may take away the stature of the CEO

5. Do not engage with those who use abusive language: since it is a free platform some indulge in abusive language hiding under the garb of anonymity. Sometimes, the urge to respond to such comments would be very high. But it is always better to distance oneself from such conversations and not respond at all.

6. Figure out a system to handle customer service or product complaints: it is natural the general public will reach out to the CEO about individual product or service complaints and expect the CEO to solve it. While it is important to be responsive to customers it is impossible for CEOs to fix every product or service related issue. The customer service or social media team should monitor such complaints to address them.

7. Keep it positive: a timeline which is a source of new relevant news, inspiration and motivation from a CEO is a far better residual imagery and something customers, employees  and potential customers would look forward to.

8. Moderation is key: in the context of digital addiction, a recent article in HBR said: ‘Our Digital Lives Don’t Need to Make Us Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unwise. Many of us, yours truly included succumb to the addiction of social media, consuming and sharing anything and everything. We, especially CEOs need to remember that it is only a digital tool and it is up to us to figure out what to use it for and how best to use it.

Your views? Do share them in comments.

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