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Executives have an irrational dread of social media. They instantly go on the defensive as they imagine endless breaches of trust and the horrors of shredded reputations. In most instances, it’s way over the top as none of this is overly complicated or taxing – it’s just another form of communication which needs to be understood and managed like anything else.

It’s about taking an interest and knowing what the boundaries are. Paul McNamara, Managing Director of Insurance and Investments at Barclays, says: “From time to time I will ‘join the conversation’ or share thoughts or ideas I find interesting. These could be on significant topics like retirement, financial planning, use of technology… equally, it could be on a simple observation from during the day.”

For Phil Smith, CEO for UK & Ireland at Cisco Systems, social media is a “useful way of providing a concise and current update to a wide community who can typically receive it in a convenient form, which is usually mobile”.

The value lies in it being quick, easy and direct as opposed to putting out messages through laboured, endlessly re-worked press releases. Adam Bates, UK Head of Foresight and Innovation at KPMG, comments: “Not enough UK board members use social media to interact with customers or to show their own people that they are not boring, grey-suited and dyed-in-the-wool…

“The reality is that if they are sensible, don’t give away market sensitive information and talk in general about things that are happening, they are not going to get into big trouble and it’s a great way of communicating with their different types of stakeholders. People are just too cautious and the risk dial is probably turned up too high.”

Test the Waters

Beyond the more established social media channels like Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In, newcomers like Google+, Pinterest and Instagram are gaining traction among the business community (Snapchat might be a bridge too far).

Helen Murray, Chief Customer Solutions Officer at outsourced contact centre company Webhelp TSC, says: “The more I use social media channels in different ways, I get a better feel for how people respond to the information that’s out there and the speed at which they respond. Very often people will comment on a tweet or Linked-in post in minutes, wanting to get a more in-depth view of our opinion because they can see we have some understanding on the topic and that we can add some value to the discussion.”

It’s a case of experimenting and finding your voice. Andrew Powell, Chief Operations Officer at Colt Technology Services, says: “I started using social media about two years ago when our brand team came to the executives and said: ‘Look, none of you guys are using it and you’re missing a trick because this is where the future employee base will live, breath and operate…’

“It’s been a real watershed for me at Colt and has opened up conversations with people who in the past have been very nervous about hierarchy and reserved about approaching and raising business issues.”

The general view from those who've ‘done it’ is that it’s not so scary an endeavour after all. Peter Cheese, CEO at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), comments: “There are CEOs I’ve come across who are terrified about how much time it takes. And I must admit, before I crossed the Rubicon and embraced social media that was one of my fears.

“My marketing team were constantly saying you’ve got to get on Twitter and I was saying: ‘Well, I haven’t got time for all that, what with all the emails, articles, blogs and meetings I have to attend to… But it’s not that onerous at all.”

Perhaps one of the biggest risks is discovering whether you’ve actually got anything of interest to say. Andrew comments: “If I just re-tweeted or sent Colt corporate messages onto Twitter all the time, people would soon be turned off. You have to give a little bit of yourself and give a little of what you’re thinking to a much wider audience than your company’s employees.

“I have about 700 followers, only about 150 of which are Colt employees, and to have any credibility in this space you have to show you are a human being by expressing your opinions. It’s not just a corporate messaging system.”

Phil says that statements have to be differentiated from the brand messages or “it can be seen as just marketing” and he’s learned to adapt his approach over time to become “very casual and personal”.

Fine Lines

If there is a danger, it’s being unclear about how those within an organisation are communicating. Helen comments: “We take quite a structured and planned approach. We have customer-facing social media experts who also invest their knowledge internally, to help us understand how to use it.

“We also have people in our comms and marketing teams who see things from the brand perspective. We use them to build a plan around what we want to say and between the three or four of us on the board that use social media, we agree who’s most appropriate to respond… if there’s any ambiguity we’ll have a conversation about it, but we’re keen to each have our voice and our own style.”

Yetunde Hofmann, former Global HR Director at Imperial Tobacco, says: “The risks of social media are the same as any other form of written communication, it’s open to interpretation by the reader and therefore the intention of the writer might be completely misunderstood. It’s fine if you’re just providing links and neutral comments, but the minute you’re starting to give your opinions and commentary on other people’s work or responding to questions, therein lies the danger.”

Like any communication, timing and delivery have to be tailored to the situation. Chris Merry, CEO of accountancy firm RSM Tenon which was taken over last week in a pre-pack by Baker Tilly, was not about to start using Twitter to inform employees and shareholders about what had happened.

“We didn’t use social media,” he says. “Rather, we did the usual RNS [Regulatory News Service] announcement via the London Stock Exchange, then I recorded a video which all staff can watch and then there will be a series of presentations in offices which supports the initial written announcement.”

Common sense plays a part in this, as it does with all internal and external communication. But avoiding social media channels completely, or having a half-hearted approach, will only serve to create a negative view of both yourself and the business you represent.

I hope to see you soon.