The Digital CEO: How to Leverage Digital Media to Demonstrate Engaged Leadership

The Internet is increasingly entrenched in our daily lives. We use it to research products before making a purchase, search for health information, reconnect with old friends and get our news. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer speaks to this transformed media landscape, where search engines (63 percent) and online-only media (53 percent) emerged as two of the most trusted sources for news and information. Millennials are even more trusting of digital media than the rest of the population, with 51 percent trusting information on owned and social media.

This explosion of communication channels is changing the game for CEOs, who simultaneously face a critical trust gap and mounting pressure to step beyond the business and be change agents for societal good. This year’s Trust Barometer found that – while the majority of people may not trust CEOs – they have clear expectations for how CEOs should engage. Bridging this trust gap requires more authentic leadership; CEOs must be visible, purpose-driven, amenable to sharing their stories in personal and relatable ways, willing to engage directly with employees, and accessible to stakeholders.

The good news is that digital engagement can help with all of the above. Social media sites that developed as personal networking and B2C marketing tools have since opened new means of communication for B2B and influencer-focused programs. Some CEOs are already using digital channels to engage key stakeholders, leading to a 10-point increase since 2015 in the number of people who trust information from CEOs on social networking and online-only information sources.

How can CEOs continue to build trust by engaging via online channels?

The Digital Opportunity

While it may seem like there are new channels, apps and engagement opportunities popping up every day, there are four channels that CEOs are using most often.

LinkedIn. LinkedIn launched their invite-only Influencer program in October 2012, allowing users to follow thought leaders and read their blog posts, comments and status updates. Since then, the Influencer designation has been granted to approximately 500 business leaders and LinkedIn’s long-form publishing capability has become standard for all users. Because it was first to the game, LinkedIn still leads in popularity among top executives, with 70 percent of socially-active Fortune 500 CEOs choosing LinkedIn as their first foray into digital. Content ranges from business updates to personal leadership lessons. For example, Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson is using LinkedIn to share updates about the company’s merger with Starwood, while Virgin Group founder Richard Branson often shares broader posts like the importance of personality in hiring decisions.

Twitter. Though it doesn’t have an influencer program, Twitter is another popular platform for CEOs to engage with employees, media and other stakeholders. With its 140-character limit, Twitter updates often include links to earned or owned media, photos from conferences or short videos. AirAsia global CEO Tony Fernandes used Twitter to provide prompt, heartfelt updates after flight QZ8501 was declared missing. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff not only uses Twitter to provide business updates, but to drive conversation about societal issues like anti-LGBTQ laws.

Facebook. Facebook emerged in the past six months as a compelling option for CEOs. With Facebook’s invite-only Business Influencer program, CEOs have access to a range of highly engaging content opportunities, including Facebook Live, Q&A, native video, photos and Facebook Notes. Facebook reaches 45 million users with business news every day, creating an unparalleled opportunity to connect with customers, employees and other stakeholders. Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman used Facebook Live to stream the company’s NASDAQ bell ringing. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced his new philanthropic fund via a Facebook status. And our own CEO Richard Edelman shared a Facebook video of the Trust Barometer launch at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.

Instagram. Instagram continues to grow in popularity. Though some CEOs may hesitate to commit to such a visual channel, it is worth considering given that photos and videos are often more humanizing than written content. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon uses Instagram to preview new productsshare personal family memories, and post photos from different Walmart facilities. T-Mobile CEO John Legere shares everything from cooking photos to group shots with employees.

Other CEOs share content via YouTube, Medium, company blogs and even regional channels like Weibo. When developing a digital plan, it’s important to consider where the executive’s target audience is active online and the content type and cadence of posts that best fit the executive. Also weigh whether he or she needs personal digital channels or if it makes more sense to share content by or about the executive from existing corporate channels.

How Digital Can Build Trust

While this year’s Trust Barometer shows that direct engagement via company communications and industry conferences are still two of the most effective ways to build CEO trust, digital engagement is an increasingly important part of integrated executive positioning programs. Already, 57 percent of people think sharing views on social media is important to building CEO trust.

A digital footprint helps CEOs be more visible, creating content that appears in search results and providing a platform for easily sharing views on industry trends and societal issues. Though discussing issues like income inequality and ending hunger may not always be the right fit for media interviews or investor meetings, executives can use personal digital channels to take a clear stand on these societal issues. Similarly, talking about obstacles, values, passions and education may not always come naturally in broader corporate communications, but social media is inherently more personal and humanizing, giving CEOs an opportunity to speak beyond spreadsheets.

Social media also gives CEOs an unparalleled opportunity to engage with and align employees globally, moving beyond legacy internal communications to reach partners and desk-less employees without corporate email accounts. This is essential to building trust given that 81 percent of respondents agree communicating with employees is most important in building trust in a CEO.

Finally, digital channels make CEOs more accessible, helping CEOs reach key stakeholders on the channels where they are actively consuming information. True social media is about directly engaging with others – not just broadcasting information from the top down. Using digital channels to engage in an open and transparent way will no doubt help CEOs strengthen relationships, create a culture of integrity and bridge the trust gap.

Marcia Newbert is knowledge manager, Digital Executive Positioning, Edelman Washington D.C.