Leadership & Social Media

A few thoughts about senior leadership & Social Media

With the advent of social media the available communication platforms for senior management teams to reach out to their staff, their business partners and customers have grown significantly.  Some leaders still don’t understand the purpose, the relevance or recognise the effectiveness of social media and steer well clear.  Others have embraced the brave new world of social media with evangelistic zeal, often without fully appreciating how the new channel works. 

There is no doubt that the world is changing.  More and more leaders will become engaged through social media and embrace it as a communication platform to reach out and create influence. Social media can be a highly effective way for CEOs to share their personal perspective and talk directly to people who are important to their businesses. It is imperative that the right approach is taken or you risk social media becoming a double-edged sword. Speak unguardedly and you risk damaging that most precious of assets, your reputation. Increasingly though, organisations are coming to realise that without participation in social media the company’s voice is muted, which leaves more room for others to shape your story and create the influence you crave.

Here are some key tips that might offer a little guidance to those who want to dip their toes in the water!

Things do not disappear in cyberspace

In a traditional media setting I offer the advice to non-communication professionals that when talking with a journalist there is no such thing as “off the record”.  There are a variety of reasons for this that I will discuss at a future point.  I think the same principle applies when posting on the internet via a web site, blog, tweet or other social networking site.

Any communication created in a social media setting is as lasting as any written document.  Participation in any on-line forum is a public appearance where everything is on the record.  Assume that comments will be observed and scrutinised by the media (who extensively use the internet as a search resource) as well as examined closely by your customers, staff and others watching your company. Think before you speak – think before you tweet!  Removing embarrassing content from cyberspace is not as easy or as effective as you may believe.

Despite what you might think, it’s not all about you!

I understand that the blog or the tweet is promoted as an opportunity for a Chief Executive to talk directly to all sorts of people and to share their innermost thoughts.  Quite simply they are not!  Social media platforms must be regarded as an extension of other modes of communication. There is without doubt a great opportunity to share thoughts on company or industry issues that get amplified through networks that will reach employees, investors, customers and the media.  However as with existing communications, have clear objectives and a plan in place as you engage.

Consistency – consider communication style

There is a Chinese proverb that says "the palest ink is stronger than the hardest word".  Be aware that social media based remarks become part of a permanent public record for which you may be called to account.  Posting or tweeting on topics that you would never discuss aloud in a public forum may cause you problems. Criticising competitors, going too deep into personal affairs, or speaking about divisive issues is not appropriate if you or your organisation would not do that on other platforms. By all means be lively and challenging, but it is important to remember that what you say will generate the same reaction as if it were published in the media.  Opinions on relevant industry issues and current events that affect your business are fine but steer clear of statements that might be controversial – unless you want to be at the centre of the storm!  Remember that unguarded comment can cause problems which have to be managed by your staff, PR team and others within the organisation.

There’s no going back!

Once you begin to engage within social media there is little opportunity to stop.  One of the worst sins in a social media setting is to start the communication process and then be unable or unwilling to continue what is a discussion.  You would be offended if  someone turned their back on you and walked away halfway through a conversation – that is the parallel if on-line communication just ends.  Similarly if content gets dated (and it does very quickly) you lose the interest of your audience.  Before you get on the bus be sure you want to take the ride!

Be human to your audience

The cautionary notes above not withstanding, blogging or tweeting has scope for allowing personality to appear far more clearly than through the usual “corporate” communications.  This personal approach can be extremely attractive to an audience and is appropriate to the platform.  This is not to say your CEO has to be down with the kids – or indeed anything that he or she isn’t, but there is an opportunity to talk more naturally and less formally.  The blog is one of the best ways CEOs can engage on a deeper, more human level with people interested in their organisation. Personal insights into what it’s like to lead an organisation show authenticity.

In conclusion, any leader looking to engage through social media can harness the power of the medium. It is important to remember however that while it provides a forum for new interaction, new communications policies have similarities to traditional media guidelines.  Keeping that in mind will help you participate in ways that add value, not headaches, to your organisation.


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