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