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Five reasons why leaders should embrace social media

Social media is a powerful leadership tool in the hands of leaders eager to share their opinions and showcase their open and collaborative leadership styles to employees and other stakeholders, says Martin Thomas, author of The Financial Times Guide to Social Media Strategy

Social leader in today's workplace

Most weeks, Damian Corbett, a UK-based PR professional and founder of the Social C-Suite website, interviews one of the executives on his Twitter list of almost a 1,000 c-suite level executives who have an active social media presence. His hope is that by showcasing the evangelists he can convince the boardroom cynics about the merits of social media. The interesting thing when you read the interviews is the consistent way in which they describe both the benefits of being a social CEO and their own leadership style. Words like ‘transparent’, ‘approachable’, ‘authentic’ and ‘accessible’ and the importance of ‘storytelling’ pepper their responses to Corbett’s questions. They are social CEOs, rather than simply CEOs who use social media.

John Legere, chief executive of T-Mobile in the US, revels in being perceived as a rule-breaker. His prolific and uninhibited use of social media has helped shape his image as a straight-talking, unconventional consumer champion. He claims to spend six to seven hours a day on social media, during which time he criticises rivals, trolls Donald Trump, chats with pop stars and talks about his private life. He even has his own emoji, which appears when anyone uses the hashtag #TweetJohn.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, he describes how social media has become a key part of his leadership strategy. “It happened somewhat accidentally. I was having dinner with my daughter, who thought it would be funny to set up a Twitter account for me. I handed her my smartphone. Minutes after we finished creating the account, T-Mobile’s corporate security called to say that someone was impersonating me on Twitter. I assured the caller that it really was me. Our lawyers said it was a terrible idea for me to tweet, but I ignored them… Today I have more than three million followers [he currently has over four million], and because many of them are famous people (including Oprah), I have enormous reach via retweets. We did an analysis of this, and it’s not unusual for one of my tweets to get 150 million impressions. This is no game. It’s a way of driving my business.”

It’s not unusual for one of my tweets to get 150 million impressions. This is no game. It’s a way of driving my business

It is hardly surprising that a CEO in the telecoms sector has embraced social media – Legere’s T-Mobile makes much of its revenue from social media activities. What is more surprising is that the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, in a financial services sector constrained by regulation and compliance and almost crippled by a fear of saying the wrong thing, has also become a social media advocate. Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, has become a high-profile tweeter, sharing his thoughts on Brexit, climate change and Trump. Despite being no supporter of the president, Blankfein claims that he was inspired by Trump’s mastery of Twitter as a communications tool, especially its use in bypassing a hostile press. “I didn’t recognise the picture that was painted of me in the media then. Now people see I have a personality, that I joke.”

Leaders such as Legere and Blankfein recognise the following benefits in embracing social media:

  1. It can benefit their company’s overall reputation. Ann Charles’s BRANDfog agency has undertaken a CEO social media and brand reputation survey over a number of years, which has underlined how executive engagement with social media strengthens what she describes as “the three key pillars that support a brand’s reputation: brand trust, effective leadership and effective communication with stakeholders”.
     
  2. It provides a positive role model for the rest of the company. In a survey by consultants PwC, 86% of CEOs said that they think it’s important that they themselves champion the use of digital technologies.
     
  3. It enhances the leader’s reputation as someone who is ‘tech savvy’. Charles accepts that “there is clearly a risk to any communications channel but there is also a risk to being invisible. Leaders risk being marginalised, while other more social-savvy business leaders become increasingly more prominent. Using social is not just tech savvy but also leadership savvy”. In the future she envisages the emergence of a more tech savvy, media savvy generation of CEOs. “Simply having deep expertise within your own industry will no longer be enough.”
     
  4. It connects them with their customers. Using social media helps take managers out of the introspective, habitual comfort zone in which they find themselves talking to the same colleagues, analysing the activities of the same competitors and reading the same articles. The CEO of a US bank started his career at the grassroots of the company working as a bank-teller. In this role he could get a real feel for customer concerns and the reputation of the bank was perceived through his face-to-face dealings with customers. This is something he misses in his lofty perch as CEO, which is why he sees such value in social listening. He talks about how he wants to keep the organisation real and cut through layers of well-massaged, CEO friendly content and hear the actual voice of the customer.
     
  5. It enhances engagement with existing and future employees. In the old days you had no idea what was going on in the c-suite unless a press release was issued. Now, CEOs can use social media to help employees feel in touch and understand the direction in which they are taking the company. It is noteworthy that the primary audience for most CEO blogs or posts is employees. Phil Jones, managing director of Brother UK, describes how “I’ve learned through onboarding coffee mornings that most new joiners have ‘socially audited’ me prior to joining. By doing this they were looking to acquire a good sense of what type of person I am, what leadership style I might have, what my principles and beliefs are and whether we, as a business, are socially relevant in a digital world. So if you want bright people to join you, it makes total sense to ensure you have a digital breadcrumb trail and can be easily found”.
     

To find out more about how to make the most of social media, check out Martin Thomas's new book The Financial Times Guide to Social Media Strategy: Boost your business, manage risk and develop your personal brand, published by FT Publishing International

14 November 2018

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