Facebook has an average of 829 million daily active users. Every minute more than 120 professionals sign up to LinkedIn and 5,700 tweets are sent per second. There’s no doubt social media is a powerful communication tool for individuals and businesses, so building an online presence and engaging should be high on the agenda when it comes to being an effective leader in this digital era.
Richard Branson is a great example of a leader who engages across multiple channels. The Virgin Group founder currently has over 4.37 million Twitter followers, is active on Facebook and Google+, and publishes thought leadership on LinkedIn. While many executives struggle with deciding how to create a personal and corporate profile through social media, Branson effortlessly blends the two.
Of course, such a profile and persona are rare in business. For many executives, social media presents a conundrum. How much of your own personality do you want to reveal and what are the consequences of getting the balance wrong between professional and personal? Criticaleye spoke to a range of Members who are frequent users of social media about how to get it right and why it’s essential for leaders to dive in and explore the benefits.
1) Set Goals
Before you take the plunge on any social network, it’s important to have an idea of what you’d like to achieve, whether that’s networking, publishing thought leadership or exploring customer attitudes.
Andrew McCallum, Director of Corporate Affairs and Business Support at Dana Petroleum, comments: “Don’t just do it because everyone else is – have a real, strong business rationale for doing it... set clear boundaries and directions of what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to measure success.”
While there is a risk of over-thinking the pros and cons of social media, you do need to consider your own profile and that of the company you represent. “Executives can jump on these bandwagons without asking themselves, ‘What am I really trying to achieve?’” says Paul Brennan, Chairman at cloud storage provider OnApp.
2) Understand the Channels
If you’re going to engage with social media, it’s useful to understand the context of different channels. Sarah Bentley, Managing Director for Accenture Digital UK and Ireland, says: “Facebook still seems to be in the realm of the personal. I think that there are employers who still check that, but... it’s legitimate for that to be a personal aspect of you.”
LinkedIn, with 313 million users, is viewed as the best channel for business connections. Richard Gillies, Group Sustainability Director at Kingfisher, comments that his LinkedIn "has got lots of people on it so it’s become a Rolodex” of useful business contacts.
Sarah says: “[LinkedIn] is also a good recruitment marketing tool... I can see what personal networks look like, but also if there’s a particular client or person in the marketplace that we want to have communication with.”
Twitter, the microblogging site with 271 million users, is generally regarded as the most dynamic. Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC World Service Group, says: “The main tool I use is Twitter... it’s very versatile. It allows people to have multiple interest groups. Twitter is the primary source of recirculation and the distribution of news so it’s particularly appropriate for me.”
Beyond these sites the use of others like Google+, Pinterest and Instagram seems to depend on industry sector and personal preference. Andrew McCallum says: “There is also some geographical distinction, in China for example Qzone or Sina have got millions of users.”
3) Know Your Corporate Policy
If you’re a company founder or employed by a start-up you’re likely to have more freedom in the way you communicate on social media, whereas corporate leaders will have stricter guidelines to adhere to. Andrew McCallum says: “I think [knowing] the policy around it, really understanding the boundaries is key... be very specific about what’s out of scope or off limits.”
Domestic and international politics are areas best avoided (unless you’re Richard Branson), as are heated exchanges with customers. Laura Haynes, Chairman of brand consultancy Appetite, says: “You are dealing with your own and your company’s reputation every time you tweet or comment on LinkedIn and Facebook, therefore it’s incredibly important that you understand the impact and implications of your communications.”
Andrew Powell, Chief Operating Officer at careers education provider The Training Room, makes a similar point. “Even though you can retract or delete a tweet, you can get caught out if you let your passion overspill... If you’re really passionate about something, think before you tweet,” he says.
It’s important to remember this especially if you or your company comes under fire. Peter comments: “You have to be prepared to take a certain amount of flack. But don’t ever rise to the bait, don’t get angry. If someone is behaving inappropriately, it’s okay to block them.”
As with any communication, it’s a case of applying common sense. Andrew Powell says: “There’s a bit of guidance around policy and dos and don’ts from the marketing team that you need to be aware of, but you need the ability to express yourself. Provided you don’t bring the company into disrepute – experiment.”
4) Learn and Explore
One way of ensuring you’re up to speed is to learn from those already versed in the technology. Sarah comments: “I look at what my children do, who range from one to 16... Internally we’ve got a reverse mentoring programme where we’ve got this great analyst who joined us as a graduate... and he’s setting up a whole programme for our execs, me included, to help coach and train us.”
Andrew Powell also found it useful to learn from employees on the frontline referencing an example from his previous role as COO at Colt Technology Services. “Every country I visited, my first three meetings of the day would be 45-minute sessions, back-to-back with people from the floor of the business, talking about technology, social media, what’s going on and just listening and learning,” he says.
According to Peter leaders should be capable of working it out for themselves: “The whole world is going on Twitter. You don’t need to do a complicated course to learn how to use [social media], just sign up, have a look at it and work it out for yourself... If a leader can’t get into something like Twitter and start to work out how it might be a useful tool for them, they haven’t got the curiosity or technological skills which make them a leader in the digital age...
“Dip your toe in the water. You can start using it and consuming it well before you start to post yourself. Get comfortable with the culture of the people you’re following and see what the conventions are, the language they use... the style.”
5) Be Authentic
Navigating the line between personal and corporate may be difficult to master, but once you’ve found your voice it’ll soon become intuitive.
For Sarah sharing a little bit of personal information is good: “I do think that consumers, employees or potential clients would be very suspicious of somebody that was 100 per cent corporate and not having an element of the personal in there. So the odd comment about watching rugby or what you’re having for dinner is fine... there needs to be that element of humanity.”
Andrew Powell agrees: “[Twitter] created a whole different dialogue, where people felt a lot more comfortable in an executive’s presence and therefore the conversation and information was a lot richer for me...
"[Employees] knew what football club I supported; they knew what my kids were up to on a weekend... Suddenly you were talking to a human being rather than a level in an operation.”
Others take a completely different stance, like Paul who draws a clear line between the public profile he maintains professionally and his personal life. “I would never… start talking about my children or that I did a triathlon over the weekend, because I really don’t think it’s pertinent to the opinion piece I might be giving on cloud technology.”
It’s understandable for executives to be reticent about using social media. Why run the risk of being trolled, falling foul of regulators or upsetting customers? Besides, what does it say about the workload of a CEO if they’re spending their time tweeting when they should be focused on running the business?
While there is some credence to these objections, they can be used as a smokescreen for fear and lack of curiosity. The reality is that with minimal preparation and a basic appreciation of the rules of engagement, the negatives can quickly be surmounted. Given the emphasis on communication as a core leadership skill, it’s somewhat negligent of executives to not make time for social media and see it as another means of building closer relationships with various stakeholders.
As Peter puts it: “People can be a bit nervous about it but get over that and try it out. You’ll be surprised at how much it improves your effectiveness as a leader.”
I hope to see you soon.