CEOs on Social: Will the ego land in 2020?

According to a recent global study of 20 of the largest companies in 21 countries, only 17 per cent of chief executive officers (CEOs) globally were active on Twitter, with India lagging at just 10 per cent. Globally, and in India, CEOs are more comfortable with LinkedIn, where discourse is more civil and the noise controlled; 58 per cent of CEOs surveyed globally were active here but less than 20 per cent of Indian CEOs. This is not surprising because the former now resembles Iraq — dynamic and dangerous — while the latter is more akin to Singapore — efficient and predictable.

However, this may change in 2020. Glancing through CEOs’ new year pink paper resolutions, there is a definite desire to embrace social media. And with good reason. Their personal presence will get them a direct connect with a variety of stakeholders; an avenue to establish themselves as real, thoughtful leaders with millions of ardent followers; and, get a raw feel without filters for the pulse of millennials — the new generation of customers and employees their firms covet. And above all, a presence gives CEOs relevance at a time when Twitter dominates social discourse, throwing a shade on other communication platforms.

Today, an entire industry has sprung up to support the narrative that CEOs need to be highly social. A strategy to build a social presence is the first bullet on any reputation management deck for CEOs. And there are great examples of CEOs making an impact: Richard Branson, who lost his Twitter virginity in 2007, has used his personal brand since to drive Virgin’s new businesses through adventure, sport, and luxury. Closer home there’s Anand Mahindra, whose sustained efforts at producing thought-provoking or celebratory content as well as engaging with followers have gained him over seven million loyal followers. Mr Mahindra is a rare example of a CEO who has been able to increase his effectiveness as a social leader in part by creating a social flotilla — enlisting the M&M leadership team to successfully engage with his followers and navigate their sentiments.

Now some Indian CEOs are beginning to follow Mr Mahindra’s lead and make an impact on Twitter. Harsh Goenka, with self-deprecating humour, observational wit, and insights, has over 1.5 million followers, while Nandan Nilekani, with his perspectives on digital India and Aadhaar, has over 2.5 million.

One point of divergence between India and the world is that tech and start-up CEOs dominate leader boards globally — Tim Cook, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Satya Nadella, and Jack Dorsey have massive followings. In contrast, Indian unicorns have not really made much of an impact on social media with the founders of Snapdeal and Flipkart having less than 250,000 followers.

Despite these stray successes, LinkedIn remains the safe zone for CEOs. Although its audience is significantly smaller, there are no nasty trolls. Moreover, conversations on LinkedIn, where people still turn up hoping to find great job offers, are yet to sink to the polarised, reactionary, hateful, toxic depths that trolls have turned Twitter to. Plus, CEOs can become “influencers”, which allows them to engage their followers from an elevated level, with a corporate bias and additional troll protection. But no one will deny that if its impact and fast access to a vast audience one is seeking, then Twitter’s 280-character play remains the mass channel of choice.  

Beyond trolling, CEOs have feared social media for many reasons. Societal polarisation has been forcing Big Business leaders to take a stand on many issues, which they are uncomfortable airing publicly. Having a social presence means that they are often compelled to megaphone their views, despite their hesitance on polarising points like Balakot or the Citizenship Amendment Act.

For CEOs helming companies with consumer businesses, their personalities also become the sole target for frustrated and dissatisfied customers of their brands. Ratan Tata’s mentions (he tops the India CEO list with over 7.5 million followers but tweets rarely) are filled with complaints about car troubles, satellite TV disruptions, and hiring malpractices despite relinquishing his formal charge almost a decade ago.

Then there’s the privacy angle. While social media allows leaders to put up cutesy videos and family holiday pics to show off their human side, it is often a tough act to balance. To showcase one’s personal lifestyle while being very conscious that the average salary differential between a CEO and his or her follower is 287 times is a tough balance, especially in the austere Indian context. Plus, there’s privacy, or the lack of it. Once a personal brand goes social and popular, your followers could become stans (stalker and fan) posting forced selfies, private appearances and events, or even trespassing on privacy.

Beyond SWOTs and risk mitigation, a robust social presence boils down to personalities. If one is an introvert and easily offended, Twitter can be too hectic, whereas LinkedIn gives CEOs the luxury to immerse slowly based on a framework and a hands-off strategy. In India at least, social business icons remain the leaders of the old industrial economy. And just as their firms are embracing digital to compete and thrive, will they reimagine their communication strategy using social? Where will the ego land in 2020?

Pradipta Bagchi is a communications professional. Twitter: @bagchips

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