The Social CEO: Executives Are Using Social Media To Transform Firms

December 12, 2016
Joanna Belbey

A newly released study shows that Social CEOs can enhance the reputation of their firms, attract talent and increase sales. To learn more, I spoke with Amy McIlwain, Global Industry Principal, Hootsuite. Amy is an author, speaker, social media veteran and enthusiastic world traveler. This is an edited version of our conversation over the phone and email.

Joanna: Tell us about your recent travels that you’ve shared on Snap, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Amy: I traveled around the world to discuss research that Hootsuite conducted with LinkedIn. We explored how the use of social media by senior executives within financial services impacts employee engagement and company revenue. We found that there’s a 40% increase in employee engagement as a direct correlation to CEO or executive engagement. We learned that when sales teams are engaged on social media, they’re 50% more likely to achieve sales quota. That directly impacts revenues. We also discovered that companies with social executives, or Social CEOs, have better overall brand perception in the marketplace. These Social CEOs attract talent and drive sales. Although the study was specifically done for Australia, there are key learnings that can be applied globally and to all industries, not just financial services.

Joanna: Do you have any examples of how Social CEOs might start using social media?

Amy: Here’s a story. When a Fortune 500 CEO was promoted into his new role, he was told, “Congratulations, you’re now feared and revered”. When he heard that, he thought “I don’t want to be feared. I want to find a way to change this mindset and be more relatable and connect more deeply with my employees and peers.” After defining his goals and brand, he started using social media. He engages as a LinkedIn Influencer and is very active on Twitter. He alone has access to his Twitter account because it is his voice. Part of his brand is that he’s an avid road biker and when he races, he shares photos. That’s makes him relatable and human.

Joanna: Has he seen a difference in how people perceive him?

Amy: Absolutely. People are now taking selfies with him when he visits the office. They’re very happy and approach him, ask him about his bike trips. It’s helping attract talent and helping keep employees more engaged. We’ve learned that when employees are engaged on social media they’re typically more satisfied in their job and there’s less turnover.

Joanna: How are other CEOs using social media?

One very well-known CEO is Tan Sri Anthony Francis “Tony” Fernandes (Tony Fernandes), the CEO of Air Asia. After an air crash, he quickly addressed the crisis directly through social media on Twitter. It was so human. He has become a celebrity spokesperson and is the face of the firm. As a result, it helps people love “Tony” and Air Asia as well. Another example is Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin, who has a public face and is also very active on social media.

Joanna: Are Social CEOs creating their own content or do they have teams of people working with them?

Amy: It varies. One CEO told me that that after he comes out of a meeting, he’ll snap a photo, type up a quick summary of who he talked to and what they talked about, and send the photo and summary to his social media team. They pull out some quotes and send posts from his account based on those notes.

Joanna: So in other words, CEOs can provide the raw content to their team to edit, polish and post on their behalf. What about financial services?

Amy: One financial services firm that we work with has 20 of their senior executives engaged on social media. In this case, it’s a combination of the social media team working with the corporate communications team to understand the executives’ calendars for the week, to keep the executives aware, and encourage them to take photos.

Joanna: Tell us more about the process of enabling social executives. 

Amy: Launching a Social CEO program is a multi-step process …

Goals: First, you need to understand the overall goals of the program. Are you trying to amplify corporate content? To differentiate the executive as a thought leader in the space? Attract new talent? Perhaps humanize the company?

Corporate Branding: Before any executives gets on social media, pre-define the look and feel of their personal brands and how those are woven into corporate identifies. Consider using the same head shots and backgrounds across all the various profiles such as corporate websites, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Some financial services firms, such as Wells Fargo, include their logo at the bottom of the profile picture. In short, consistency is important to brand recognition.

Personal Brand: You also need to define the CEOs area of expertise and figure out what you are to want to project to the world. In other words, what is their personal brand? Using myself as an example, my personal brand is entrepreneur, social connector and traveler. Everything I post has to do with one of those three things. I don’t just post a picture of my dinner unless I’m having paella in Spain. It’s a very specific touch on that personal brand. And by the way, my traveling has nothing to do with my business per se, however, it’s a huge part of who I am and it allows me to connect with clients, prospects, colleagues in a more authentic and human way.

Ownership: Clarify in advance the ownership of social media accounts. Work with your legal team to define who owns each handle. Are the accounts owned by the executives? If they leave the company where do those followers go? What’s the process?

Participants: Identify the executive(s). It may not always be the CEO that goes first in this, so understanding executives is key. You typically want to start with executives that are already a little more social. For example, CFOs, many of whom come from an accounting background, may not be comfortable in the public spotlight at first. It might feel more natural for someone from a sales or marketing background.

Training: Make sure that there is training in place and develop some guidelines around what’s expected. Companies are now designing executive social programs to create social spokespersons, just as companies have spokesperson training programs for executives who speak to the media.

Content: Define who is going to create the content. Is it the executives themselves? Their teams? Who is on the team? What is the frequency of posting that content? The content for senior executives should be free flowing. Rather than create editorial calendars, look at the CEOs’ and senior executives’ calendars. Figure out who they are meeting with and where they are traveling. That will help you to develop a loose idea of the type of content that will be posted.

Analysis and tracking: You need technology and tools to support the workflow, approval processes, tracking and analysis. This is especially true when there are multiple people managing accounts, which is common with senior executives. The executive, corporate communications, an outside PR person, someone to approve a workflow, plus a social media manager could all need access to the same account. You need technology to facilitate that.

Joanna: How does this work within regulated industries? Is someone pre-approving the Social CEO’s tweets?

Amy: You don’t necessarily need pre-approval because you don’t want the CEOs talking about product. Instead, you want them talking more about lifestyle and building relationships. For example, in financial services, there’s Mark Casady, Chairman and CEO of LPL Financial. He writes his own content and stays away from talking about any sort of product or stock prices. He’s also a big Chicago Cubs fan. On social media, we saw a CEO in a baseball hat at the World Series, at America’s greatest pastime. And just for a day, he changed his cover photo while posting about the Cubs’ win. That makes him relatable and human.

Joanna: Tell us about the push-back from Compliance. How do you overcome those objections?

Amy: Get compliance involved from the very beginning. Help them understand the benefit for the organization. The challenge with compliance is you are exploring the unknown. To reduce their concerns, start with “why?”. Explain why this particular executive or CEO should be on social media and why it’s worth the perceived risk. List how the benefits will outweigh that risk. Also educate compliance on the types of content that will be shared. For example, the CEO won’t be posting annual reports, but rather showing the human side of things. And finally, describe the processes that you plan to put in place and the technology that you will deploy to monitor and manage your Social CEO program.

This blog appeared previously on Forbes.