Should CEOs be on social media?

A proactive online presence can help leaders achieve deeper and more authentic relationships with customers and employees alike

CEO posting on social media

Social media is an integral part of our lives. According to We Are Social, people spend on average more than two hours on social media every day. 

Businesses have long acknowledged this with corporate accounts and dedicated social media managers. But CEOs’ profiles are a missed opportunity to make an impact. 

The CEO is central to shaping company performance. A study by Harvard Business Review found that nearly half of a company’s reputation and market value are attributable to the CEO’s reputation. 

After the company website, social media is the next point of reference that consumers and potential employees visit, and which informs their opinions of the firm. 

A report by corporate advisory firm Brunswick shows that financial readers trust a CEO who uses social media up to nine times more than one who does not. The same report shows that 80% of employees prefer working for a CEO who uses social media, and 82% research the CEO before joining a company.

Dr Sophie Chung is CEO of digital health platform Qunomedical and can confirm this. “We’ve had candidates reach out because of something I have said online,” she reveals. “People get to know my company through me, and a large part of who I am is translated into what we do. I find that being authentic online attracts the right candidates automatically.”

The CEO of software consultancy Tech Mahindra, CP Gurnani, believes that social media is “the most efficient tool to directly engage, connect and share” with his more than 150,000 employees. He adds that his recent Twitter conversation with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman “directly influenced” the establishment of a special in-house AI lab.

Given the potential reach and impact of social media, the question for CEOs then is not whether to engage, but how?

Leading from the front

A recent report by FTI Consulting shows that the number of CEOs actively engaging on social media has doubled over the past two years. More than half of FTSE 100 CEOs now post on LinkedIn. “We have reached this point for the first time this year,” says Andrew Williams, senior managing director and corporate reputation specialist at FTI Consulting. But there’s still room for improvement. “They aren’t really active, but they have at least posted something in the last six months.”

As in real life, the effectiveness of leadership extends beyond the CEO. The same report found that having at least four leaders across the Executive Committee active on social media raises the collective impact by 36%. Transparency builds trust and 92% of professionals are more likely to trust a company whose senior executives use social media. On LinkedIn, leadership content receives double the engagement and triple the comments of company accounts. 

“Audiences want to hear from an individual. It’s hard to be social with a company. It’s much easier to be social with a human. That’s why leaders get higher levels of engagement than company channels,” Williams explains. 

Balancing the personal and the professional 

Although audiences look to leadership for professional insights, a mix of personal and corporate content tends to perform best. Success in this context means that the content is being seen and positively received by the people you want to reach. To achieve this, Williams advises leaders to get out of the mindset of a broadcast channel. “You have to respond, engage, converse with other people’s content and messages,” he says. 

Leaders across Europe seem to agree that authenticity is key. Like Chung, Job van der Voort, CEO of global HR platform Remote, views his venture as an extension of his own values and personality. “When I’m on the internet, I represent my company. The company represents what I care about,” he suggests. 

But depending on the platform, a degree of divisiveness can be helpful. “I think the way to be successful on these platforms is to be somewhat authentic and somewhat divisive,” says Van der Voort, who has amassed a followership of more than 25,000 on Twitter and almost 55,000 on LinkedIn. Based on his observations, Twitter favours more controversial content, whereas LinkedIn prefers agreeableness.

Michelle Kennedy, CEO of London-based Peanut, a social media app for women, emphasises the importance of the personal in business. “There is such a human connection to business now, in a way that I don’t think there used to be. People don’t just buy a brand,” she notes. “They want to know more about who’s behind it and how they live. Do they represent the values that they say they do? I think that is very important.” 

Kennedy likes to use voice and video for engagement, because “being able to see and hear someone is very humanising”. Being in the business of social, she has found that building a community is all about providing “authentic value immediately”. 

Being strategic at first, however, can help in building a strong personal brand. “I think it’s really important to choose your public persona at the very beginning and craft this, because the clearer the message, the easier it is to build an audience and a community,” says Chung, who has more than 11,000 followers on LinkedIn. “And then as you go on, when you’ve established your brand, then it’s less strict.”

Drawing boundaries at family

In balancing the personal and the professional, all the CEOs in this article draw the line at family. For Van der Voort, his “essential rule is: if my kid sees this when they are my age and come across my profile, will it hurt them?” 

Similarly, Chung “very knowingly” does not share any identifiable information around her child, including her face. She also does not share images of her partner, albeit for different reasons. “I want to stand by myself and my public persona and not be connected to anyone,” she says.

The degree of caution exercised, however, varies. Kennedy, for example, posts her children, but not her partner to respect his wishes. Gurnani, too, shares pictures of his children, but not of his grandchildren “to respect their privacy”. 

In deciding what to post, the nature of the business matters. A key point of Kennedy’s company, for example, is providing women with a safe space to talk about motherhood. In this context, embracing her role as a mother publicly is relevant. Similarly, Chung admits to leveraging her medical background for her public persona: “Wherever I show up, I’m Dr Sophie Chung. It’s part of my brand. I’m a doctor and I’m in digital health. That is something I consciously do.” 

On privacy and security, Williams adds that it is important to keep the online presence of close family and friends in mind. Using the exercise-tracking app Strava, for example, could easily reveal someone’s location. From this, other details can be inferred. If a child is vacationing with their parents in a location of relevance, this could have business implications if spotted by savvy journalists or investors.

Dealing with crises and complaints

Employees and financial readers consider crisis communication a key responsibility of CEOs. According to Brunswick, 92% of financial readers and 78% of employees expect CEOs to actively communicate about their company online during a crisis. Similar percentages consider “correcting misinformation about the company” on social media to be an important responsibility for corporate leaders. 

A strong social media presence can therefore be pre-emptive. A solid foundation of ongoing engagement helps leaders prepare for reach and impact during crises. CEOs who only turn to social media during crises tend to receive the lowest number of engagements per post. 

People prefer that individuals take ownership and responsibility rather than receiving apologies from faceless corporate accounts. Recognising this, CEOs such as Van der Voort directly engage with aggrieved customers when their complaints rest on solid grounds. “It shows that you care,” he explains. Some large companies, such as Gurnani’s Tech Mahindra, have set up separate social accounts to deal with customer complaints. 

The future role of CEOs on social media

People want human connection and use social media to find it. But with popularity, online platforms have become more transactional and less real. This is where leadership can step in to provide employees and customers alike with a human touchpoint to engage with. 

Being successful on social media means being able to reach your target audience. The key in doing so is being authentic on the platforms they use. Since a mix of personal and professional content is most effective, leaders are best served by reflecting on their own values, interests and preferences. This can ensure a well-rounded profile that can strengthen their leadership and maximise business impact in the long run.