Leading CEOs Are Not Social Online
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Holmes Report

Leading CEOs Are Not Social Online

The majority of CEOs from the world’s largest companies (64 percent) are not social, on that they are not engaging online with external stakeholders, according to “Socializing Your CEO: From (Un)Social to Social,” a new study from Weber Shandwick.

Paul Holmes

The majority of CEOs from the world’s largest companies (64 percent) are not social, on that they are not engaging online with external stakeholders, according to “Socializing Your CEO: From (Un)Social to Social,” a new study from Weber Shandwick that examines the publicly visible communications activities of CEOs in the world’s top 50 companies.


“Strong evidence exists that CEOs are not silent in these turbulent times,” says Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist and online reputation expert. “They are extensively quoted in the business press, frequently deliver keynote speeches at conferences and participate in business school forums. But when it comes to digital engagement externally, CEOs are not yet fully socialized, often with good reason. As we continue to track the rise of the Social CEO and chief executives become more comfortable with the new media, we expect that this will change and change fast.”


More than nine out of 10 CEOs in the world’s top 50 companies (93 percent) communicated externally in traditional fashion: 93 percent were quoted in the major global news and business publications and 40 percent participated in speaking engagements to an external, non-investor, audience.


But most CEO online visibility is limited to what is said about them on Wikipedia, the web-based collaborative encyclopedia that exists independently of the efforts of CEOs and their communications teams. Removing Wikipedia leaves the online CEO space rather barren: only 36 percent are engaged through their company websites or in social media channels in any way—including CEO messages on company websites, video/podcasts on company websites or company YouTube channels, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, company-affiliated blogs.


The research identified the following characteristics of Social CEOs:

  • Social CEOs lead companies with higher reputational status. Most admired company CEOs in our study had greater online visibility profiles than less admired company CEOs (41 percent vs. 28 percent, respectively).
  • Social CEOs are multi-users. When they engage online, social CEOs employ more than one channel, with 72 percent using more than one channel (on average, social CEOs use 1.8 channels).
  • Social CEOs are more likely to represent American companies. CEOs of companies with headquarters in the U.S. are more likely to engage online than those in EMEA (60 percent vs. 12 percent, respectively). Although the sample sizes of CEOs in Asia Pacific and Latin America are too small to allow for reliable comparison, indications are that they too are at low levels.
  • Social CEOs are more tenured. Newer CEOs (3 years or less) are less likely than those in their middle (3 to 5 years) or later period of their tenures (more than 5 years) to engage online—30 percent vs. 38 percent vs. 43 percent, respectively.


When CEOs go social, they are most likely to post non-shareholder letters or messages on their company websites (28 percent). This content is primarily focused on corporate and CEO leadership news. Social CEOs are next most likely to be featured in video or podcasts on their corporate websites or company YouTube channels (18 percent). Less than 10 percent of the CEOs analyzed used Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn or participated in external blogs.


"It’s not surprising that CEOs are less inclined to participate in social media given the perceived risk and time commitment required to engage in two-way conversations," ays Chris Perry, president of Weber Shandwick Digital Communications. "What's surprising, however, is how few CEOs are using social technologies as mediums to share information and company perspective. These are potentially powerful tools for real-time communication."


Adds Gaines-Ross, “There are several reasons why CEOs are not more Social. Time is better spent with customers and employees, their reputations are at an all-time low among the general public, the return on investment has not yet been proven, legal counsel tends to caution against it and anything that smacks of ‘celebrity CEO’ is a no-win.”


There are also solid reasons why CEOs should engage online, she says. “In this increasingly digital age, CEOs should embrace the value of connectivity with customers, talent and other important stakeholders online. With 1.96 billion Internet users around the world, CEOs should be where people are watching, reading, chatting and listening.


“Our analysis of leading CEOs around the globe revealed that traditional media still remains the preferred outlet for CEO external communications. What is changing is how CEOs are slowly coupling their traditional media communications with social networks and channels where they can reach more stakeholders and give their companies a much needed human face or connection.


“The nearly four in 10 Social CEOs in Weber Shandwick’s comprehensive analysis may be trailblazers now but in short order, will be expected from leaders who want to portray their companies as transparent, accessible and trustworthy. The Social CEO will one day be commonplace.”


The firm recommends “six rules of the road” for CEOs to enhance their social reputation and interactivity:

  • Identify best online practices of your peers and best-in-class social CEO communicators. Then establish and stretch your own comfort zone.
  • Start with the fundamentals (e.g., online videos or photos). Inventory and aggregate existing executive communications for repurposing online.
  • Simulate or test-drive social media participation. Understand what you’re getting into before you go live. Start internally although recognize that internal employee communications spreads externally seamlessly.
  • Decide upfront how much time you can commit to being Social. It can range from once a week to once a month to once a quarter or less often. Be your own best judge of what feels right.
  • Craft a narrative that captures the attention of audiences that matter and humanizes your company’s reputation.
  • Accept the fact that Getting Social needs to be part of your corporate reputation management program. Purposefully manage your social reputation as well as your corporate reputation.
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