Fear and loathing: why CEOs don’t like social media

Richard Branson posed a question on LinkedIn today asking “Why aren’t more business leaders online?” Rather than being a generic ‘online’ question, he was particularly asking about social media, citing IBM research which shows that only 16% of CEOs worldwide use social media.

Clearly Branson is one of those bosses that bucks the trend:

“….when you get to the very top of companies, there is a surprising lethargy about using the online tools already available: social media. Embracing social media isn’t just a bit of fun, it is a vital way to communicate, keep your ear to the ground and improve your business.”

I don’t think many people reading this blog will disagree with that sentiment and there’s tons of evidence that shows that bosses that use social media build more trust with their customers.

Richard Branson

The IBM study dates back to May this year and reassuring predicts that in the next five years that percentage of CEOs using social media will rise to 57%. But why wait?

Well, what I usually hear is that it’s a generational thing and the CEOs of five or ten years time are more likely to be using social media personally and therefore more comfortable with it in a business setting. I have to say, I hate the age excuse when it comes to social media. I know plenty of people in their forties and fifties that know more about social media than me, a late thirty-something, and also know a fair few graduates that a pretty clueless about digital communications.

No, in my experience there are three main reasons why so few CEOs use social media professionally: fear, apathy and time constraints.

  1. The fear comes from not being in control and being worried (actually quite rightly in a number of cases) about what happens if they are attacked online and forced to abandon their account. Given that CEOs take a lot of advice from legal teams and financial advisors – not known for risk taking – this caution is hardly surprising. And if you’re a CEO of a plc, you’re actually quite limited what you can say about your business from a disclosure perspective.
  2. The apathy is based on personal experience. Since many CEOs don’t get much personal value from social media, they can’t understand why others would. On more than one occasion I’ve heard a senior executive say, “I don’t care what other people are having for their breakfast, so why tweet it?” This will change as more executives use devices on the move and with better connectivity find that they can get more up to date information via social media than news sites – they just need to learn how to find it more easily and weed out the breakfast tweets!
  3. The third reason is time constraints. Yes, I know, sending 140 character messages or +1ing something is hardly a major commitment. But to get value you need to invest time into listening to what others have to say before pitching in and, well, running a company is obviously very time consuming. I try to reply to every social media interaction I get, but I’m not a plc boss, who could potentially get hundreds of requests a day. And, if it’s going to be authentic, they need to be replying to these personally. Sure, there are bosses like Branson that deal with it, but I understand time being an issue to overcome.

So, how do you persuade CEOs to do it? Well, you can’t. CEOs will only invest the time into social media if they see a competitive advantage in doing so. The CEOs that I have known that do get value from social media find that it’s an excellent listening tool and useful to get instant feedback from customers – cutting out the marketing teams, that might have an ulterior motive. Like Branson they value the interaction and don’t see it as a chore at all. After all, it gets them closer to their customers – it’s the online equivalent of walking the floor.

And let’s not forget that there’s much more to social media than Twitter. Many of the recent changes to LinkedIn, for example, make it a much more feature-rich social network and it seems to have come out of its sleep-walking mode that it’s been in for the past five years. LinkedIn is a much safer and relevant environment for CEOs to spend their time (just look at your page insights to see what kind of people visit your business page – you’ll be surprised how senior they are).

At a time where trust in business, the media, politicians and other institutions is at an all time low, it seems that the business leaders who are most open and engaging online are the ones most likely to succeed.

Postscript: I know Richard Branson is a celebrity business boss, but it’s interesting this the comments on his LinkedIn post currently count over 700 – there’s engagement for you…

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