CEOs & Social Media: Authentic Engagement?
by Jacqueline Farrington
Over the past few years, social media has transformed the way we consume and disseminate information. From the Arab Spring uprising to the recent abduction of 276 girls in Nigeria, the social web spreads news and creates a platform for interaction that is far-reaching and deeply impactful. No one disputes the power of social media, yet fewer than 30% of CEOs of top companies traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange are active on social media sites.
By not engaging in social media, leaders are missing out on a tremendous business opportunity. Anand Mahindra, CEO of Mahindra Group, a multinational automobile manufacturer, has seen the payoff of embracing social media. With nearly one million Twitter followers, Mahindra tweets about everything from company updates to inspirational quotes and movie reviews. The benefit is increased global visibility and the elevation of both his corporate and personal brands. By sharing authentically and openly, Mahindra has built a strong presence and attracted a global following far greater than would be possible without social media.
Engaging in social media, however, is about more than sharing authentically. It is about creating a conversation. By nature, social media is interactive, two way communication. Since it is on the internet, it is also available to the general public. On any given day, the internet lights up with stories of leaders or companies that plunge into social media only to be met with embarrassment.
Last November, for example, JP Morgan Chase decided to harness the power of Twitter to build stronger relationships with its customers through a live Twitter Q&A session with Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee. The session lasted only a few minutes before the barrage of negative tweets forced the bank to take it down. A few of the best ones can be seen here.
JP Morgan’s blunder revealed that they had not anticipated the facts that a) the Twitter chat was available to anyone with an account and b) a large number of those account holders held an unfavorable view of the bank. The bank had not laid the groundwork and was not prepared for an honest, transparent two-way conversation with the social web.
To its credit, JP Morgan Chase reacted to the negative feedback with authenticity and humor. The tweet cancelling the chat read: ‘Q&A is cancelled. Bad idea. Back to the drawing board.’
For CEOs and managers venturing into social media, preparation and strategy is key. Because information is so readily available in today’s world, leaders and their personal decisions and beliefs are increasingly tied to their companies. The recent resignation of newly appointed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, while an extreme example, highlights this phenomenon.
In 2012, Eich made a $1,000 donation to support Prop 8, an anti-gay marriage initiative in California. From a transparency and social media standpoint, Eich did everything right. He transparently acknowledged the donation proactively and crafted a narrative that attempted to separate his private beliefs from his fitness to serve as Mozilla’s CEO. Despite this, an outcry from the Mozilla community prompted him to step down after only two weeks in the position.
In Eich’s case, the divide between his personal beliefs and the carefully cultivated culture and mission of the company he lead was simply too vast to be breached by even the most strategic social media and communications plan. The chairwoman of Mozilla’s board admitted as much in a blog post following the resignation:
We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves. We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.
The authenticity and humility of this response signaled to customers and stakeholders not just that their voices had been heard, but that the company was recommitted to staying true to its culture and mission.
As social media continues to grow, engagement with the medium as a leader will become more essential to the CEO role. Understanding the two-way dynamic at play, being responsive, and embracing authentic transparency will help leaders harness social media’s power to enhance presence and grow their businesses while avoiding the pitfalls inherent in real-time virtual communication.
Jacqueline Farrington is the Director of Training at Purpose Consulting Group and the Founder of Farrington Partners.