The Social CEO in a Crisis

Posted in: Online strategy, Social PR, Twitter

On: June 27, 2014


Most CEOs in North America aren’t on social media networks. In fact, one study puts the percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs who are active on Twitter at less than six percent.

The excuses are predictable. CEOs tend to be prudent managers of risk, and social media is a world filled with potential problems. It is not controlled like a carefully vetted press release, blog post or even a usually-respectful business reporter interview.

No, the social web is the Wild West of communication. Internet “trolls” will lash out without the need of facts. Hashtag hijacking (like both McDonalds and the NYPD discovered) is always a risk to brands. That makes social media a scary place for a control freak CEO.

And it takes time too. CEOs are busy people and they often feel they don’t have the time to Tweet.

So if no one’s doing it, then that must be the right thing, right?

Nope. Not even close. 

Social media is important to CEOs and other C-suite executives. And it is becoming more important with each passing day, while the absence of many prominent CEOs becomes that much more glaring.

study by Brandfog found that 75 percent of Americans surveyed agree that CEO participation in social media leads to better leadership. That’s up a remarkable 30 percent over the results in 2012.

The survey also found that 77 percent of Americans said that C-suite executives who engage on social media create more transparency for the brand, and 80 percent agreed that social media has become an essential aspect of PR and communications strategy for C-Suite executives.

That is key, particularly when crisis strikes. It gives the CEO and the brand both the credibility and channel to manage a crisis response.

CEOs need to understand that the old rules of crisis communications no longer apply. The scrutiny on a company during a crisis situation is immediate. Have a product recall or failure, information leak or industrial accident? There is no time to hide behind “holding statements” while you find out what happened and try to prepare a statement.

Any crisis will be live-tweeted and live-blogged, not just by journalists but by anyone with a smartphone.

No matter the industry, the social CEO is much better prepared to weather this storm. They have built up a following, and more importantly, credibility. They can respond immediately to the crisis and help shape perceptions during those all-important early minutes.

Look at electric car impresario Elon Musk. He’s used his own Twitter feed and his company blog to respond to crisis situations. He effectively and quickly pushed back at the New York Times over a slimy and contrived takedown of his Tesla car. He’s also slammed regulators who are trying to stop his direct sales model from disrupting the cozy dealer auto sales system in New Jersey. That type of response is stronger coming from a CEO, rather than a faceless brand account. Elon Musk shows the power of social media for a CEO when it’s exercised with purpose.


Despite the slow adoption of social media by most big company CEOs, some, like Musk, have made the jump.Richard Branson from the Virgin Group, Marissa Mayer from Yahoo, Marc Benieoff from Salesforce, and evenRupert Murdoch from Fox are active in social media, advancing the conjoined interests of their personal and corporate brands.

Speed is the other key factor when using social media for crisis communications. You simply don’t have time to wait to respond. Consider how fast-growing startup Buffer handled a recent hack. Even though the hack occurred on a weekend, and there was no one in the office, Buffer responded immediately. The first reports of spam Tweets occurred at 2:20 p.m. and Buffer responded by acknowledging the problem and halting service at 2:36 p.m. They quickly followed that up with several blog posts and an email to their 1 million customers.


That decisive response – acknowledging the problem and being transparent in how it was being addressed – helped Buffer get through a crisis that otherwise might have killed the young company.

So CEOs can choose to ignore social media. But that comes at a cost in terms of credibility and access, one that will become harder and harder to ignore, particularly in the face of an almost inevitable crisis situation.

So ask yourself—what’s  holding you back?

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