Should your C-suite tweet? Maybe!

‘Should the C-suite tweet?’ was the question at the recent CIPR Corporate and Finance’s group seminar. The unequivocal answer from the panel of experts was maybe!

The expert PR panel was made up of:

  • Stuart Jackson, former director, CEO Office, EE, now CEO and founder of UP communications
  • Jon Sellors, RSA Group, UK head of media relations
  • Oliver Smith, technology, media and telecoms reporter, City AM
  • Alex Pearmain, former head of social media and PR at O2 and Telefonica, now director at Brands2Life

There’s a good reason why the panel agreed that the answer was ‘maybe’ and that’s because it’s the only right answer. Whenever, I attend this type of event it’s usually 90% ‘affirmation’ to reassure myself that what I’m counselling clients is aligned with what other expert PR professionals are saying and 10% inspiration where you get an insight into a new idea.

One of the earliest remarks that resonated with me was made by Alex Pearmain who said “If you’re a good communicator, you’re probably a good tweeter”. Journalist Oliver Smith pointed out that only 11 of the FTSE 100 chief executives had Twitter accounts and some of them weren’t even using them. He also made the essential point that he hoped those that weren’t using Twitter had made an informed choice not to. I always advise that sometimes CEO or board director tweeting is right, other times it isn’t. What is never acceptable is for the c-suite not to be tweeting because of fear, ignorance or perceived lack of ability. There can be many reasons why a CEO or board director should or shouldn’t tweet, but it always has to be an expert-led decision. An unacceptable reason for a CEO not tweeting is because the PR team believes he or she isn’t capable.

If you believe your CEO is incapable of tweeting then you don’t have a Twitter problem, you have a CEO problem. A core competency of a good CEO is the ability to communicate effectively. That includes face-to-face, print, radio, TV and today online including Twitter. If they can be trusted to do any sort of media interview then they can use Twitter effectively – with the right advice, training, mentoring and support.

The next important point was made by Stuart Jackson who spoke about who should ‘own’ social media as lots of people in a company or organisation want to claim ownership. Stuart quite rightly said asking that question indicates a fundamentally wrong approach to social media. The reality is that many people in a company need to be using and therefore ‘owning’ social media, but all in what might be very different ways. The CEO’s office, public relations and corporate communications, human resources, marketing, legal and regulatory etc all need to be aware of and ‘owning’ their part of social media. The social web is no longer new, but should be an integral part of how a successful company operates. The way that PR uses social media and its objectives for doing so are likely to be quite different to how marketing or HR use it, but all are equally valid. There is an ‘ownership’ role for public relations, which is ensuring that the broader reputational issues are always considered when social is used, but that’s no different to our reputational oversight role in everything a company does.

One of the important elements of planning for the CEO or c-suite to use social media is to ensure it is aligned with how other parts of the company are using social media. One of the perceived dangers of a CEO or c-suite Twitter account is that it will be ‘swamped’ or ‘attacked’ with questions and comments on every aspect of the business from sales and customer services to CSR and recruitment. Thinking and planning how other parts of the business use social media is the best way to manage and prevent this. That’s not the same as saying every part of the business needs to be using Twitter or social media first, just that you’ve got to have planned for the possibilities.

I’d add one final point that wasn’t made by the panel and it’s that you need expert, professional counsel before exposing your CEO or c-suite to Twitter and social media. There is a wealth of information available from seminars like this morning’s to blog posts like this one, conferences galore (I know I speak at many), books (I know I’ve contributed to some of them). But just as watching or reading a lot of sport doesn’t make you an expert player, neither does reading a lot about social media make you an expert who can provide the right counsel.