The Emperor’s New Tweets

By turns exhilarated, exhausted and confused, marketers and corporate communicators have wrestled for a number of years with the risks and opportunities represented by the digital universe in general and social media in particular. Brands, we are told, are in constant danger of being blown up by suddenly visible and angry consumers buying URLs and launching derisory hashtags on Twitter to excoriate the latest target of the public’s seemingly unlimited supply of venom. A recent column by Andrew Hill, writing in the Financial Times’ Special Report on “Global Brands” (Financial Times, 21 May, 2014),is representative of the genre: “The ‘Twitterstorm’ – almost a brand in its own right – is capable of tearing apart a corporate name in a matter of hours”.

On the corporate communications side, the hyperventilation concerning “connected leaders” is just as pronounced. In countless executive suites around the world, professional corporate communicators are being asked by chief executive officers (CEOs) and other leaders – “what kind of a social presence do I need to demonstrate leadership, authenticity and represent my organization in the world?” The statistics suggest, however, that only a small number of large company CEOs have actually made the leap into the digital maelstrom. Data from Domo and (2013) suggest that only 5.6 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs are active on Twitter, 27.5 per cent on LinkedIn and 7.6 per cent on Facebook. Views differ on whether these digital musings must come directly from the mind and “pen” of the executive himself or herself or whether, like corporate speeches, bylined articles and employee communications, they can legitimately be the product of professional communicators, tweaked and approved by the executive in question before being launched into the digital surf. In either case, however, it appears that social media are a tool that CEOs want to use but, with the exception of certain tech company leaders are not yet comfortable actually doing so.

In one respect, these new digital media offer something that business leaders claim to revere above all else – means of measurement. With a glee reminiscent of Frederick Taylor (Taylor, 1911[1]) and Frank Gilbreth (George, 1968[2]) with their time and motion studies, social media experts offer a rich spectrum of engagement metrics: unique monthly views, volume of engagement, rates of engagement, time on page, share-ability, likes, pins, search ranks, links, followers and many others. Inevitably, these metrics have also been aggregated into rankings of influence such as Klout scores and Kred Influence Measurement, purporting to show comparative influence in the social media ecosystem.

What is sorely lacking to date is any systematic means to link these measurements of output and engagement to meaningful determinants of real influence. Without such measures, corporate communicators find it extremely difficult to determine the benefits of, and justify the costs of, social media engagements by corporate executives. While the world of the digitally engaged senior executive continues to evolve monthly, we can at least begin to see how and in what manner we might attribute value to the not insignificant amount of time and resource devoted to this emerging practice.

We would like to propose four critical areas of inquiry to determine whether a senior executive should invest time and resources in a significant online presence, either in his or her own words or “supported by” professional communicators. The answers to these questions will also help determine which of the many different potential social media platforms should be prioritized:

  • Which social media platforms does my target audience frequent?
  • What kind of behaviors (online and off-line) am I seeking?
  • What kind of content drives those behaviors?
  • What level of refreshment frequency do they seek and can I sustain?

Which platforms: the Willie Sutton principle

Although he never actually said it, legendary US bank robber Willie Sutton will forever be associated with the remark a reporter attributed to him about why he robbed banks, “it’s where the money is” (Sutton, 1974[3]). The Willie Sutton principle applies equally well to the issue of where business executives should be seeking to create online communities. It should be wherever his or her target audience likes to spend time. The answer to this question will depend in large part on who the target audience is. For one type of CEO, that target is investors; for another, it might be customers and prospects in the tech space; and for yet another, potential recruits in high demand categories. Some CEOs might even want to reach existing employees in public forums. It all depends on the individual company’s circumstances and business strategy.

Desired behaviors

The second critical question is what kind of behaviors, either in the online context or in the real world, are we trying to promote? Some senior executives believe or claim they believe that they are polishing the reputation of their organization by their activities in social media. While this may be true in certain circumstances, we believe that it is important to be much more specific about the desired behavior change in the target audience to justify the time and resource investment. We think that the important questions to ask are:

  • How can my social media presence persuade investors of the long-term credibility of our strategy and cause them to maintain or increase their holdings?
  • How can my social media content increase awareness of our distinct strengths as an organization, shortening time to close with prospect decision makers?
  • How can my social media activity persuade potential business partners that my organization is the industry leader with which they most need to be associated, causing them to enter into new agreements with us?
  • How can my social media engagement influence high potential recruits to accept our offer of employment?

Once one queries executive social media leadership with these specific question sets, it becomes much easier to justify the time and also determine which metrics of performance in social media best correlate with these objectives. It could be volume of shares, number of followers, comment scores, direct messages arising from a posting or even invitations to meet off-line.

The content

Here the subject of inquiry becomes somewhat perilous because social media place a distinct burden not only on content but also on tone. Freed of the ballast of conventional forms such as the keynote speech, the white paper and the press release, executive social media content can sometimes seem lost or out of joint. If social media are, as we have been told, a critical forum for leaders to exhibit authenticity, where does that leave individual executives whose management style is more oracular than intimate? The result, too often, is a strange lurching between the high and low – a blog post about trends in the supply chain, followed by a tweeted picture of the family at the beach. It is also important to stick to age- and role-appropriate language and, it should not need pointing out, icons and acronyms. Real-world rules apply here, but it is sometimes surprising to see LOLs in posts from CEOs who would never dream of opening the annual shareholder meeting with the word “wassup?”

The answer on content has to be the result of a carefully crafted strategy that assigns certain types of content to individual platforms so that the reader/viewer has some predictability in the type of content from an individual executive that he or she can choose to consume. This is the social media equivalent of knowing not to wear slippers to the office or attend one’s child’s Halloween parade in a three-piece suit.

The nature of this content will vary enormously by individual and by the nature of his or her business, but we believe that those advising senior executives on social media should look closely at the qualities that people look for in leaders, qualities that we believe actually do not vary all that much:

  • Perspective – we expect leaders to have insights about the industry in which they operate and the worlds/people that industry touches;
  • Passion – a comically over-used word as applied to leaders, but we do want to see conviction that the leader and the business he or she leads has a purpose in the world; and
  • Personality – sometimes a trap for over sharers, but we like to see a glimpse of the person behind the role, an occasional view of a personal interest, travel or other experience.

Some combination of these three key content variables can offer a rich portrait of a responsible leader helping to shape perceptions of the corporate brand, although there are some obvious pitfalls here. Photos of the CEO racing his or her vintage Maserati tend not to go down very well with average wage earners.

Frequency and timing

The question of frequency is perhaps the easiest to answer, as the different social media platforms have established consumption cultures of their own that, to some degree, dictate the optimal frequency of content refreshment. On Twitter, for example, the brevity of the medium itself (140 characters) and the way that readers interact with it has driven brand users to multiple intra-day posts. Citing analysis by SocialTrack, Kevan Lee, writing in Fast Company, points out that rates of engagement on Twitter correlate strongly with the total volume of Tweets, with spikes of increasing engagement appearing along the volume curve (Lee, 2014). While we believe that very few senior executives would want to establish a frequency of posts this high, we can assume that Tweets that only appeared once a month would make it difficult for the author to establish credibility in this medium. Each of the other main platforms, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, among others, has a rhythm that seems to work best. The most important point about frequency, however, is that there should consistency and predictability, whether that is three times a day or once a month.

The other critical frequency factor cited by social media experts is the subjective, but important, measurement of reader/viewer fatigue. In other words, when does the frequency of posts irritate the potential reader/viewer enough to cause him or her to stop clicking on the content. While this factor is clearly less important than pertinence to the reader, appropriate frequency for an individual executive can best be established by experimentation which will show which frequency gets the best response.

There has also been much written, on the brand side, about when, during the day and during the week, social media posts do best. Social media analytics firm, Buffer, cites a number of statistics suggesting that the end of the week is the best time to post on Facebook and that Twitter gets more engagement in the afternoons and over the weekend (Cooper, 2013). What this might mean for executives on social media platforms is open to interpretation depending on their target audience, but we suspect the same rules might apply. We believe that most people seek relief from their direct obligations as the day progresses and find it in social media. Similarly, their weekends leave, on average, more time for this kind of activity.

Putting the plan into practice

Having established answers or at least theories to test answers to the preceding questions, it becomes time to actual put the CEO’s social media plan into action. Most commentators suggest that it is important to start by creating a bank of potential posts and content that will cover two to three months of social media outings. Each executive will need to determine how much of that content should literally originate with him or her and how much can be written by others and approved. Each individual leader, planning a social media strategy, should also create a personal guide for their posts to ensure that they do not inadvertently divulge confidential or material information. Much of this is common sense for senior executives, but there are some pitfalls unique to social media. Many smart devices that can take photographs or shoot videos have geo-tagging enabled. Sharing a photo in a blog post or Tweet could provide a competitor with information about the executive’s whereabouts, unintentionally providing clues to a secret business meeting such as one involving potential merger discussions. Whatever the individual guidelines are they should provide sufficient protection against faux pas without handcuffing the content so completely that it renders the purpose of a social media presence useless.


In conclusion, we believe that CEOs and senior executives can use social media effectively, as long as they have a clearly defined purpose and have established ways of measuring whether that purpose is being fulfilled using social media. It is critical that those metrics do not simply measure the online activity but reach out to perception and behavior change that can be directly measured, whether that be investor activity or new business opportunities. On a final note, we believe that CEOs and other senior executives have a wide range of communications vehicles open to them perhaps more than any other single group of individuals. For us, this means that once the itch to be au courant by having a social presence has faded and competitive one-upmanship regarding social media between CEOs ceases to be a factor, the choice to be social or not social in media will once again become a matter of individual taste and preference.

“The Emperor’s New Tweets” appeared in The Journal of Business Strategy Vol. 35, Issue 4, and is reprinted with permission from Emerald Publishing Group Ltd.


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