Should retail CEOs be on social media?

Sources: Facebook/@dougmcmillon; LinkedIn/@dan-schulman; Twitter/@ramonlaguarta
Dec 28, 2020
Tom Ryan

A just-released study from Lewis, a San Francisco-based marketing agency, found two in three of Forbes top 300 CEOs had no active social media presence.

Lewis said in the study that CEOs had been expected to be more socially active this year given that the “ramifications of Covid-19 put the spotlight on organizational leadership.”

Articles exploring whether CEOs should be on social media often cite time constraints and challenges many execs face finding their online voice among the reasons they avoid the practice. Many execs see social media geared toward younger generations and favor face-to-face interactions. Off-tone remarks can lead to social media backlash. Cybersecurity and legal risks have further been cited.

Yet articles well before COVID-19 had extolled how CEO posts online can help humanize a brand while supporting recruitment and retention.

“It is essential for CEOs to have an active presence on social media, not only to act as an ambassador for their business, but also to strengthen their own personal brand and raise their profile as a thought leader within their industry,” Nancy Elgadi, digital director at Right Angles, a reputation consultancy, recently told CEO Magazine.

Brunswick Group’s Connected Leadership study from June 2019 found 65 percent of U.S. employees saying it’s important for CEOs to actively communicate about their companies online. Sixty percent said they checked executive social media accounts before accepting a job offer.

Eighty percent of employees expect a CEO to communicate on social media during a crisis. Ninety percent of financial publication readers surveyed as part of Brunswick’s study felt the same.

LinkedIn was the most popular channel for CEOs, with 44 percent of the execs active on the platform. Twitter came in second at 15 percent. Over 60 percent of the Top 50 CEOs on social media as ranked by Brunswick use more than one platform.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon was named the most connected leader by Brunswick, with a strong digital presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

“Doug McMillon’s ownership of social media has changed the game for this company,” one Walmart associate told Brunswick’s researchers. “He understands that it connects us, drives us, and builds morale within the store. His presence gives that extra ‘spark’ we all need.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see more benefits than drawbacks for retail CEOs being active on social media? What advice would offer to limit the related risks of engaging in social engagement outreach?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"CEOs, or anyone in business for that matter, should only be on social media if their target audiences will be receptive to their messaging on that platform."
"This is one place where personal lifestyle and opinions may be sacrificed for professional merit."
"I’d advise most CEOs to step back and let their PR pros handle the social channels. You wouldn’t handle your ad creative either."

Join the Discussion!

19 Comments on "Should retail CEOs be on social media?"

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Jeff Weidauer

Having the CEO on social media is taking a risk. Some CEOs will be good at engaging, others will do more damage than good with ill-considered remarks and lack of awareness. For most companies – especially large, publicly-held firms – the rewards don’t outweigh the risks involved.

Steve Montgomery

I was getting ready to write my comments and then scrolled down and saw there was no reason to. You nailed it. Social media can be your friend or foe and far too often CEOs and others have found it to be the latter.

Richard Hernandez

You saw a lot more CEOs online this year with more frequent posts. People wanted transparency – what were you doing to take care of the people that work for you and the stores that serviced your customers, and what were you doing to help the community? It was great to see that companies big and small stepped up to the challenge. I hope this transparency will continue beyond the pandemic.

Ron Margulis

CEOs, or anyone in business for that matter, should only be on social media if their target audiences will be receptive to their messaging on that platform. A CEO could write the cleverest tweet ever and it won’t be worth a thing if her client base, set of influencers, etc. don’t see it. It takes work to determine if the right audience is using any given platform and then even more work to build out the right list of followers and create a cadence of original content that positions the CEO as a thought leader/influencer/mover/shaker.

Phil Rubin
3 months 19 days ago

If we have learned one thing in 2020, it’s that leadership matters. That leadership now includes having a voice on social media, whether we like it or not. The numbers – 80 percent of employees expecting it – provide more than ample evidence of this reality.

Scott Norris

It’s important for staff, shareholders, suppliers, boards, and communities to know if a CEO has a cogent vision and action plan – or if he’s simply a stuffed suit. Social media helps everyone make that determination faster and more transparently – accelerating worthwhile change efforts and hopefully outing ineffective/destructive management before too much damage can be done. This needs to be a core expectation of the job, not a nice-to-have.

Neil Saunders

Media and marketing companies think CEOs should be on social media — what a surprise! For some CEOs this may make sense, especially if a brand is centered around them personally or they have important messages they want to share. For others, there is very little point as they are focused on running the business and don’t wish to become personalities in their own right. In all cases, social media needs to be handled with care as messages can become distorted and arguments flare up over the most innocuous statements.

Shep Hyken

CEOs participating in social media is more about personality than just having a presence. It makes sense for anyone in business to have a LinkedIn profile. Beyond that, if a CEO participates in Twitter, Instagram, etc. on a regular basis, it should be congruent with the image of the company and the personality of the CEO. Putting a face behind a brand can be powerful.

Gary Sankary

The ability for CEOs to actively and genuinely engage with customers is really unprecedented. We’ve always wanted to know what our customers are thinking and now we have the ability to find out. For the right CEO and the right company social media presents a great opportunity to drive the brand forward and build relationships directly with customers. I also think there is a big difference for the CEO, and any business people, between their Twitter audience and their LinkedIn audience. It’s important to leverage the strengths of each appropriately.

Brandon Rael

While there may be some short term benefits to having a direct audience with the CEO via social media, it’s a slippery slope to navigate, as every word and statement will need to be delicately managed. This is a particular concern with public companies as every tweet, LinkedIn post, and Instagram upload has to be in complete alignment with the corporate messaging and business strategies.

However if the account is managed in alignment with marketing, social media, and legal teams, the CEO engagement could serve as a solid ambassador of the brand. A good example of this has been Doug McMillion, the CEO of Walmart, who has leveraged LinkedIn as an excellent social media channel to extend the company’s good will and show his appreciation for his workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kim DeCarlis

The CEO should be the number one ambassador for the brand and, today, that means engaging across channels including social media. Three considerations will help you be successful in social outreach. First, get a social media mentor – usually a digital native that really understands the channel – and listen to their coaching and advice. Second, spend some time observing the interactions of your brand – and competitor brands – to get an idea for the topics and tone of interaction, including when to engage and when to stand down. Third, know your audience and engage with them on the right channels – perhaps keeping more formal business topics to one channel and more casual interactions on others. Over time, social media will become second nature and you’ll find that the front line connection with your audience can be a true difference maker.

Shelley E. Kohan

If the target market and the employees expect to see their leadership on social media, then the CEO should build that voice. Be warned, however, it must be authentic as today’s consumers can read through any form of conversation that is not true to the brand. Doug McMillon has been a great example of staying on brand, I enjoy reading his posts which are a combination of employee and customer-centered. Levi is another great example of having an authentic brand voice on social media.

John Hyman
3 months 19 days ago

Without coordinating a content strategy with the company’s marketing team? Without assistance writing a compelling message? Without great imagery? Without a process or platform to ensure repeated distribution? Without an understanding that sharing content effectively on social isn’t easy to do right?

Cynthia Holcomb

This is a no-brainer. Why is it the case that “two in three of Forbes’s top 300 CEOs had no active social media presence?” Because they are smart.

Doug Garnett

There are more drawbacks to CEOs being on social media than benefits.

The company BRAND is what needs to be active in communication. Customers really don’t care what the CEO has to say — and CEOs are rarely well trained to say it in ways that might build business. As a result, we tend to get harsh sounding bureaucratese from most CEOs.

My advice for any CEO is to stay away UNLESS there’s an exceptional reason to believe they can do some good for the brand.

James Tenser

I see more peril than payoff for retail CEOs who engage actively in social media. There are exceptions, of course, but dynamic business leaders should not have enough free time to consider and compose their own posts.

A hired social media assistant could cover the task, but at the risk of propagating an inauthentic voice. Supervising this activity can become a distraction, and errors of fact or policy can escalate into PR headaches.

On the positive side of the equation, social media offer an immediate and direct “megaphone” for the brand voice. A highly-talented business leader may build trust by sharing their personal perspectives and taking responsibility for the company’s actions.

That’s tricky territory, however. I’d advise most CEOs to step back and let their PR pros handle the social channels. You wouldn’t handle your ad creative either.

Craig Sundstrom

“…strengthen their own personal brand and raise their profile…”

I think Ms. Elgadi got to the heart of the matter, for better or — mostly — worse: it’s really much more about self-promotion and satisfying (insatiable) egos than anything useful to the company. My advice couldn’t be simpler: don’t.

W. Frank Dell II

For most CEOs, social media is a bad idea. It reminds me of the advertising agency pitching the CEO to be the spokesman in the commercials. They build the CEO’s ego until he/she buys in. But then when their non-personality falls flat, and there is no way to recover. The same thing happens in social media with the CEO as spokesman, then all assume that everyone in the company agrees. In today’s environment there is no right answer. Saying or doing one thing only upsets some other group. Focus on offering products people want and stay out of the social world, because you will always be wrong.

Rachelle King

As well as this can go for some, it can be an equally challenging proposition for others. It’s the same question of should doctors and lawyers have social media accounts. It’s a probably so, but it’s not personal. This is one place where personal lifestyle and opinions may be sacrificed for professional merit.

For some companies, like Walmart for example, constructively managing the social media profile of the CEO can help bring much needed humanization to the brand and company. But, these are not personal accounts (videos of family pets, venting about politics or even sharing your latest master chef creation). The key is to define a communications objective for executive social media accounts and work closely with corporate PR to manage content strategy. These must be carefully curated accounts to stay on brand and more importantly, to stay on strategy. Otherwise, it’s a fast ball into social media hall of fame where there are no real winners.

"CEOs, or anyone in business for that matter, should only be on social media if their target audiences will be receptive to their messaging on that platform."
"This is one place where personal lifestyle and opinions may be sacrificed for professional merit."
"I’d advise most CEOs to step back and let their PR pros handle the social channels. You wouldn’t handle your ad creative either."

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