They’re influential, they have a high-profile, and may hold  the destinies of hundreds of thousands of employees and investors in their hands. Yet, a remarkable 61% of Fortune 500 CEOs are unwilling – or unable – to engage in social media activities that could promote their organisations to a global audience of billions.

This is according to Entrepreneur magazine, which also says that this reluctance may stem from a different time – when social media was regarded as frivolous and unimportant as a business tool.

Millennials are shifting the way that CEOs engage with the public

But the world has moved on since then. Millennials (aged 23-38, in 2019) have become a major force in terms of influence and buying power. These consumers want immediate two-way communicate with the organisations they engage with. They also want to hold organisations accountable, and to understand their standpoints on key social issues. Who better than the CEO to facilitate this interaction, credibly?

It sounds logical. Yet new research – published in June 2019 by global communications group Brunswick – surveyed several thousand corporate employees and readers of the financial press. In the UK and US social media usage by CEOs is not only lacking, but may be even worse than that indicated by Entrepreneur magazine. It’s basically non-existent.

“A majority of CEOs at S&P 500 and FTSE 350 companies are effectively offline at a time when their customers, employees, and investors are very much online. These executives have an opportunity to update their leadership habits in an increasingly connected world… yet, only half (48%) have a social media presence,” says Brunswick in a media statement.

The public wants to see CEOs getting involved

Brunswick notes that, while CEOs are expected to focus on financial and strategic issues, there is now an increasing expectation for direct communication. A majority of US and UK employees surveyed believe that communication on social media, from a CEO, has a positive impact on the company’s overall effectiveness (66% US and UK) and reputation (71% US, 72% UK).

“The Connected Leadership Survey confirms CEOs are missing a major opportunity by ignoring social media,” says Noah Kristula-Green, Associate with Brunswick Insight and director of the research project. “The data shows that employees see value in their leaders communicating more transparently and that readers of the financial press will turn to social media to see how a CEO responds to a crisis or an emergency.”

But some CEOs are breaking the mould…

Of course, there are CEOs who use social media to great effect. In the UK, Virgin chief Richard Branson is a notable exponent. High-profile and outspoken, he has a remarkable 16-million followers on LinkedIn, 12,6-million Twitter followers, 3,9-million followers on Instagram and 3,2-million likes on his Facebook page.

In the Guardian newspaper a few years back, Head of Marketing Communications for law firm Gowling WLG, Rebecca Scully, notes: “He [Branson] clearly understands the opportunity that social media presents for him to represent the Virgin brand to a wider group of people and make them feel part of its story.”

Image result for richard branson on linkedin

Branson sums it up

In Branson’s 2017 book Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography, he highlights how important social networks have become for customer service, something that has always set Virgin apart. “Those companies who haven’t reacted to the expectations of swift, useful online service will see their customers move to their rivals quicker than you can type 140 [now 280] characters,” he writes.

Andy Barrat – Ford, UK

Another UK-based top exec, with good social media credentials, is Andy Barratt – Chairman and MD of Ford, UK. Although his 20 500 LinkedIn followers are a small percentage of Branson’s, it is still a decent figure. Tomas Bay, a business consultant and business coach with the UK-based Swire conglomerate, says: “(He) makes Ford look great. He makes his people look great. He makes his customers look great. Barratt puts a face on Ford UK. He makes Ford UK human.”

So what does it take to level up to social CEO status?

Remember that it’s not about you. Although you’re the leader of the organisation, your conversation should be about the work the organisation does, its ideals, its triumphs, the people it serves and those it employs. Kate Collins, CEO of the Teenage Cancer Trust and the overall winner of the 2018 Social CEO Awards in the UK, advises: “People can clock a self-promoting CEO in a lot less than 280 characters and they switch off.”

Being social is not a daytime job. You can’t schedule 30 minutes of your working day to “be social” and expect to be successful. Often the best social opportunities happen when most people are enjoying downtime at night or on weekends. Industry crises don’t happen during office hours, and if your company hits the headlines in the Sunday tabloids it’s best not to wait until 9 am on a Monday morning to begin crafting your social media response.

Be responsive. Following on from the point above, try to react personally to as many queries, concerns and complaints as you can. A response from the top obviously carries far more weight than something from a customer-service representative or PR professional. Where you do have to pass the matter on to someone else within the organisation, say “we’ll get back to you as soon as possible” and then make sure that it happens.

Solve problems. Most companies on social media seem incapable of actually resolving issues. They’re great at platitudes and making promises, but months down the line it’s common to see the same customer complaint still going around in circles. Nothing will kill your social media credibility faster than promising to resolve an issue and then failing to do so. You’re the person at the top; make it happen.

Use the information that you glean. Social media is about having conversations – not simply talking to an audience while they hang on your every word. Use the feedback and the comments, even the insults, to gather insights from the marketplace that can benefit your business.

Be wary of knee-jerk reactions. While you need to react promptly to social media issues, take a breath or two before you respond to highly emotive situations. Better still, consult a colleague or a communications professional and see if they can give you a calming perspective before you say something you’ll later regret. What’s said on social media tends to stay on social media – although you may think that you’ve hit the ‘delete’ button. Even if your impulsive statement doesn’t get you into trouble now, it could well come back to haunt you later.

Be a leader. Being too malleable won’t make you a successful social CEO… just ask Richard Branson. Keep point 4 in mind, but don’t shy away from having an opinion and being outspoken. Meaningless corporate double-speak may ingratiate you with your lawyers, but it won’t endear you to your social media audience. Important issues, particularly where morals and ethics are involved, require people in leadership roles to take a stand. Be that person. And remember that being legally correct doesn’t necessarily make you morally right; the two can be mutually exclusive.

Don’t worry, be happy. Just as in any other walk of life, on social media it’s difficult to like someone who is always moaning. Even if times are tough, be sure to lighten up and put a positive spin on things where you can. Instead of just focusing on problems, try to outline solutions too.

Be humorous. A little humour goes a long way towards creating personality and being easy to relate to. Poke fun at yourself sometimes. But don’t try too hard, as your audience will pick up on this. Being the perpetual clown prince can also damage your credibility.

Choose your platforms. Richard Branson has mastered the art of being popular across a wide range of social media channels – but that doesn’t hold true for everyone. Each platform is different and appeals to a slightly different audience. What works best for your business and your message? What works best for your natural talents and inclinations? LinkedIn isn’t ideal if you’re targeting a younger, less well-read audience, for example. The visual nature of Instagram won’t work if your audience thrives on long thought-leadership discussions.

So get out there and influence the growing online conversation, rather than merely becoming a passive onlooker. It’s going to benefit your business, as well as your personal brand.