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Why CEOs Need Social Media

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Donald Trump – America’s incoming chief executive – won the U.S. presidency, in part, by using social media to communicate directly to the American people. His short-form, real-time social updates created a sense of authenticity and genuine communication, while also making Hillary Clinton’s more nuanced communications seem less transparent. Other top executives should take note of this approach for directly engaging stakeholders.

Today, less than half of the general population trusts CEOs – a critical trust gap that CEOs must work to overcome through more open and authentic communications. A key audience for those communications are employees; not only does 81 percent of the general population view employee communications as a way to increase CEO trust, but employees are also viewed as some of a company’s most trusted spokespeople.

Thus, an important step for CEOs to address this trust gap is engaging directly with their employees through consistent, transparent communications and two-way dialogue. But how can a CEO build this dialogue when workforces come in all shapes, sizes and sometimes even shifts? As the media landscape continues to transform, social channels provide a unique opportunity for CEOs to communicate directly with their employees – including team members without company email addresses or access to traditional intranet channels.

The success of Trump’s strategy and the growing use of social media among business executives brought us to a question: Could actively communicating on social media improve a CEO’s approval rating among employees?

To test our hypothesis, we used Glassdoor’s list of the Top 50 Highest Rated CEOs of 2016 to help identify the most well-liked and respected CEOs in the United States, as voluntarily ranked by their employees. Not surprisingly, the list included well-known and socially active tech CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and Google’s Sundar Pichai. But the list also included some lesser-known names from a diverse set of industries. We mapped the social footprints of all 50 CEOs across four core social channels – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram – noting which platforms they used, frequency of posting and type of social content, etc.

Our analysis showed that more than 75 percent of the top 50 highest-rated CEOs were present on social media channels, and that the top 25 CEOs tended to be more socially active than those ranked in the second half of the list. More than half of the top 50 were present on LinkedIn and a quarter of the top CEOs were either LinkedIn Influencers or members of Facebook’s Business Influencer program. Just two of Glassdoor’s highest rated CEOs – Zillow’s Spencer Rascoff and Lululemon’s Laurent Potdevin – were active on all four social channels, with the broader group using LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in decreasing order.

While we are not pointing to causation, this analysis shows that actively using social media is likely a growing factor in CEO approval ratings, as doing so seems to increase both transparency and authenticity. There are also some important learnings that we can take from these CEOs’ social habits, mainly to instill humanizing qualities into posts and be vocal on societal issues. Here are four editorial pillars to include in content planning for top executives, along with examples from some of the CEOs on Glassdoor’s list:

  1. Share posts on company culture – Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff recently shared a personal video on Facebook of an employee event.
  2. Spotlight employees – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spotlighted employees at a Swedish data center using first-person storytelling and artistic imagery.
  3. Share personal aspects of your life – The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer shows us that the general population is interested in a CEO’s personal values, obstacles they have overcome, their personal success story and their education and how it shaped them, among other non-business updates. Many top CEOs share these aspects of their personal lives; SAP CEO Bill McDermott recently posted a personal account of his own career journey on his LinkedIn page. T-Mobile CEO John Legere often gets personal as well, posting tweets about his day-to-day activities and hosting a Facebook Live stream every Sunday called #SlowCookerSunday.
  4. Industry insights and advice – Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst frequently shares articles on LinkedIn outlining his unique industry perspectives.

A company’s employees and subject matter experts are not just important stakeholder groups, they are often a company’s most trusted voices. As we look to 2017, the tenor of the times and rising sense of populism dictate that CEOs be more transparent and accessible than ever before. The voices of employees and “people like me” will also continue to grow in influence, so CEOs must step beyond the realm of business to engage employees on the digital platforms they use in their personal lives. Doing so will not only increase transparency, but can inspire employees to share their own content about a company’s vision, purpose and performance with their friends and families.

Marcia Newbert is knowledge manager for Digital Executive Positioning in Washington D.C.
Hilary Teeter is a senior account supervisor with the Employee Engagement team in Washington D.C.

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