Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why and How Leaders Must Engage in Social Media

When I did a presentation on social media for C-level women executives last year I argued that leaders must engage with stakeholders in order to lead engaged organizations. I believed that then; I believe it now. People just can’t do “social media appreciation,” they have to participate at some level in order to understand how it really works. If they don’t understand how it really works, how can they assess how well their organization is doing?

In the interim, I’m happy to note that there has been research on the issue. The BRANDfog CEO survey published in the spring has gotten considerable attention. It quotes Aman Singh of CSRwire and Forbes.com as saying:

Transparency, vision and open communication are key to great leadership and corporate social responsibility strategy today. . .customers expect to hear from the executive leadership team on social media channels, as a direct way to connect and engage with the brands they love and the causes they support.

The data I find most compelling is that 82% of respondents are much more likely/more likely to trust a company whose executive team communicates openly. That is the gist of my argument.

When I sat down to write this post I looked for other recent studies. I was only mildly surprised to find that IBM’s Executive Exchange has a larger, personal interview survey fielded about the same time; IBM is good at social media, externally and especially internally. Again, one quote seemed to nail the situation: 

Though CEOs frequently mentioned dipping their toes into social media waters, few claim to be personally immersed. This arms-length involvement puts CEOs in a precarious position. They are making critical judgments about a disruptive technology without much firsthand knowledge. And they’re uncomfortably reliant on the counsel of less experienced Generation Y advisors. “For the first time in my career, I feel old. People in their 20s work and think about this social stuff in a different way,” a U.K. insurance industry CEO shared. “We’re using it as a way of connecting with friends and socializing; the kids coming up are using it as a way of life.

These CEOs see social media use increasing by over 250% during the next five years to become the second most important way of engaging with customers. They still see face-to-face as number one. Over the same time frame, they see the importance of traditional media decreasing by over 60%.

The IBM argument is that connectedness through social media is not just a customer issue. Open communications also build and strengthen ties with employees and partners. There is no implication that it is three separate streams of communication. At the CEO level it’s about vision and values with detail on activities mostly left to the functional specialists. There is no implied platform recommendation either. The advice is “Be where your customers expect you to be.” They emphasize the importance of mobile to expectations about timely information. However, in this context mobile is not a platform. It’s a way of delivering social networks to customers according to their expectations.

The picture is one of a media world in the process of revolutionary change and the IBM study making the clearest statement I’ve yet seen of CEOs knowing they need to be part of that change but not knowing exactly how.

So I go back to my original argument; leaders need some personal exposure. Writing in WSJ, Dr. Alexandra Samuel has interesting recommendations leaders and would-be leaders should read for themselves. She sees interesting time-saving value in effective use of Twitter and mentions pressure for CEO blogs. She also suggests having some fun (“Build a Golf Course”) while learning.

If social media is essential to corporate communications and if executives can engage in ways that use time effectively, what reason is left not to engage in a personal and meaningful fashion?

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