Calling All CEOs: Social Media is Here to Stay. Learn How to Use it.


I recently participated in a Growth Igniters Radio podcast on social media use by CEOs, which posed the question, “Is a social media presence good for a CEO’s career?” Good or not, it’s happening, and its use by CEOs is increasing. So, let’s take a look at it.

Backdrop and Context

A recent survey shows that social media participation by Fortune 50 CEOs increased two-fold since 2010. In addition, 76 percent of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women engage in social media and twice as many newer CEOs engage in social networking as do longer-tenured CEOs. What does all of this mean?

It means that we are past the nascent days of social media where all of us—well, at least some of us—wondered if this trend was going to last. Those percentages may be slightly misleading (for example, most CEO social media studies include a CEO’s appearing in a company video on the company website as participation in social media, which is stretching it), but CEOs’ use of social media is here to stay and growing fast.

Here are some of the highlights of my podcast interview, which may cast some light on what increasing executive involvement in social media means, as well as serve as pointers for executives who haven’t taken the plunge, but want to dip their toe into the social media waters.

Do you need to have a presence on social media?

Social media is a very big umbrella with many different components. There is your company’s website, which allows you to be as basic as posting a profile or yearly update. In addition, you can use your company’s website for weekly blogs, podcast interviews, and other items to increase your visibility as well as your company’s. There are also LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr and a variety of other social media platforms available to you, each of which serves a different purpose.

Now, to my question, do you need a social media presence? My answer is, it depends on two primary factors: what industry you are in, and what do you want to get out of social media? Anyone who wants to work in the technology industry but is not involved in social media probably won’t get hired. It would be like wanting to work for an airline, but to never have flown in an airplane. There are other industries and professions that are social media dominant, and if you want to work in those industries, you must have a social media presence. In addition to technology other examples of sectors that are heavy social media users include high level government jobs, politics, entertainment and, surprisingly, not-for-profits.

Retail and customer-facing companies were among the first to see the value of their executives’ use of social media. Twitter quickly became a preferred avenue by companies such as Netflix, Nike, Whole Foods and Amazon to connect with customers. 

Retailers aren’t the only type of business quick to effectively use social media.  Newspapers, sports teams and even professional service firms like law firms, consulting and even executive search firms are using various social media tools. We at The Alexander Group are client-relationship focused. The firm and its team use social media extensively as a communications tool to engage clients and candidates. If you are the CEO of an energy company, it is not critical for you to be active on Twitter and other social media platforms, unless you want to be known as an energy executive who is social media savvy. I doubt that you will find the CEOs of Exxon and Shell as active on social media as those of Facebook and Apple.

That said, you shouldn’t take too much comfort from the fact that you haven’t yet embraced social media, even if your company is in a 20th or 19th century industry. All businesses are increasingly becoming technology businesses. Take GE for instance, founded in 1892. Have you noticed its recent ad campaign, aimed at 20-somethings, making the point that it is a technology company, it doesn’t just make things? And check out the social media presence of its current CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, as well as its former CEO, Jack Welch.

Dipping your toe in Social Media

For those curious about social media, try a basic LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is a good platform on which to start because executives already have the basic information for a LinkedIn profile easily at hand and it requires very little maintenance or input. Recent surveys show that as many as 22 percent of all Fortune 500 company CEOs have a LinkedIn profile. All LinkedIn requires you to do is sign up, create a profile (which will take 5 to 10 minutes to complete), and add a photo. If your company is public, an acceptable photo is as close as your annual report.

We have written many blogs on the use of LinkedIn for reference checking, finding new positions, recruiting and networking. Most large search firms have wide ranging access to LinkedIn and many high-level searches are filled by looking for certain profile criteria (for example, a CEO who is a Duke University graduate) on LinkedIn that a typical database won’t provide. So, at a minimum, have a LinkedIn profile for both you the executive and one for the company. One CEO commented that he now enjoys having a LinkedIn profile after not having one for many years. He says, “It means a lot for my employees worldwide to be able to connect with the CEO. It makes them feel part of something big. I’m happy to be connected to them as well. We are a team that is united in our mission to serve our customers.”

How can an executive effectively use social media?

First, let it sink in that social medial is not a hobby but an effective executive business tool. It does not waste time, it saves time. Second, understand what social media can do. It allows you to touch others in a personal way, and helps you shape your (or your company’s) image. Third, be clear of your purpose. What is your intent in using social media? What do you want from social media? It can be a tool for imparting the voice and visibility of your company, or for managing your career, or for both. Many of us in the executive search business believe executives—especially those north of age 50—need to have some engagement with social media to at least show they haven’t parked their car in the 1990s and are stuck. Yes, it is important to be current. 

Signed up:  What is expected of me?

There are no rules for social media on frequency of use though if you use it frequently and in a manner that shares insight and information, you will have more impact. For LinkedIn I don’t see people who post regularly. But if you are seeking to brand yourself, gain visibility etc., post regularly but not so much you wear people out. 

Should you, the busy CEO, do your own posting, or have your well-trained and well-paid PR staff prepare your content? Keep in mind that social media is personal communication, and no one says “you” as well as you do. Content prepared by others tends to sound like it. You want your social media communications to be personal, fresh, interesting, and authentic.

Will I not get the gig if I hate or don’t know how to use social media?

The short answer is that a CEO’s lack of a social media presence will generally not be fatal to his or her career, except, perhaps, in technology, internet businesses, journalism and popular entertainment, but it indicates a failure to employ the more effective broad personal communication tools available today.

Companies and boards of directors don’t hire a particular executive because of his or her social media use, but an executive’s avoidance of social media does raise eyebrows, especially if the person is over 50. Why is this person not staying current? Has time passed him or her by?

How can you avoid social media pitfalls?

We all know, all too well, of wishing we could recall an email or a text. This is only magnified on social media. Keep in mind that social media are public venues, and social media communications are both instantaneous and public. They are not private correspondence. Posts get shared. Tweets get retweeted.

You can avoid disaster by knowing your intent before you communicate and being strategic in crafting your communication. What is my purpose? What do I want to accomplish? How do I want the recipients to react and respond? How might they react and respond?

And while there are downsides, social media can be educational, broaden your horizons, and have impact on you professionally and personally.  As with most things, don’t knock it until you have tried it. 

Credits: Yahoo, LinkedIn

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