As one would imagine, Mark Zuckerberg has a very popular Facebook page, with over 79 million followers. But a chief executive doesn’t have to found a social network to have a wide following online. When old-school investor Warren Buffett tweeted “Warren is in the house” in 2013, he got replies from everyone from Bill Clinton to Ashton Kutcher. CEO.com claims it’s the most shared Tweet by a CEO.
A digital presence is increasingly becoming part of a company chief’s public face, and in today’s post-Occupy Wall Street climate, a CEO who’s seen as an online influencer is an asset to companies that want to stake a position of leadership.
A CEO’s credibility with consumers when speaking about the company’s condition is far ahead of their own board of directors or government officials, according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer study.
“Honesty goes a million miles in this world,” said Ashley Connors, group strategy director at agency StrawberryFrog. “If a CEO can be real and wants to have real conversations with real people, then it could be a great way to humanize the corporate side of a brand.”
But most CEOs remain aloof from social media; an annual survey found 61 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social media presence. Sometimes this is due to fears of breaking disclosure regulations, or because they are just too busy, and sometimes — more problematically — because the C-suite is insulated from the company frontline. That is a big lost opportunity: The Edelman study found 79 percent of consumers think knowing a CEO’s personal values and history is important to form trust with the company.
Many CEOs have become popular bloggers, like venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
J.W. “Bill” Marriott, founder of the hotel chain, has a well-regarded blog where he shares life lessons from his appreciation for his mom on Mother’s Day, to what he learned about business selling long-johns, to lumberjacks early in his career.
Not coincidentally, most of the star blogger/CEOs are in the technology and social media space, like Tesla’s Elon Musk and Arianna Huffington. The fastest-growing following for a CEO on Twitter belongs not surprisingly to Apple’s Tim Cook.
But that doesn’t mean that they have to be techies; a CEO can be coached to blog, and even a CEO in the most mundane, old school industry can engage successfully. The most engaged CEO on the Fortune 500 is American Family Insurances Jack’s Salzwedel.
A few tips and suggestions to get these time-strapped executives online and avoid the risks of sounding out of touch from too much time spent on the C-suite bubble:
Don’t force it.
If your CEO is not up for it, it won’t work.
“If an executive does not like to write, then they are not going to blog,” said Jeremy Simon, director of influencer & partnership marketing at Attention, the social arm of agency KBS.
It all comes down to the CEO’s personality and how comfortable he or she is with the medium, said Matt Lang, senior digital strategist at digital agency Rain. For example, he noted Branson is an outsize personality, even beyond the business sphere.
As an alternative, Simon said Rain has had the most success when the CEO or executives make themselves available to “a passionate group of influencers,” rather than indulge in thought leadership that may not be a good fit for the CEO’s personality. This will create a more authentic partnership and a mutually-beneficial relationship with the influencers, he said.
Use the persona, drop the ego.
Anyone can be trained to tweet and blog, but no training can give the CEO an authentic voice, say experts. Without that, it becomes a chore that will likely die of neglect, they warn. Find something—like Marriott’s lumberjack undies—that fires up the CEO and make that a focus.
“Just like celebrity endorsements, people will sniff out inauthentic corporate executives,” said Connors. “If you have a CEO that wants to act as an influencer, the key is to find the truths he, she, or they can connect with people on.”
Letting CEOs have their say in their own words is not always the most graceful prose, but consumers don’t expect perfection, said Connors. If the blog connects with people, it doesn’t need to be perfect, she said.
But if the CEO is a perfectionist, see the next piece of advice.
You may need a friendly ghost, or at least an assistant to handle the early drafting for a busy CEO. The CEO may be an amazing thinker, but not a graceful scribe.
“There are plenty of young, marketing savvy and ‘social media-confident’ CEOs who don’t need training or ghost blogging, but there are other CEOs who may be less comfortable with the pace and visibility of social media who would benefit from having a ghostwriter,” said Christine Villanueva, of agency Walton Isaacson.
Lang suggested a compromise between the ghosting model and the CEO author: having someone on staff write a first draft, leaving the CEO to polish the final, so it has his or her voice with less effort, but still maintaining the necessary authenticity.
“At that level, they’re all very competent people,” said Lang. “The question is not capability, but is that a better use of their time?”