Being a Social CEO – Crisis or No Crisis

Something brought social media leadership into the spotlight over the last couple of years. We all know that that ‘something’ was – the Covid-19 pandemic.

But why exactly did the pandemic make leaders suddenly stand up and take notice of social media?

The challenges for CEOs and business leaders brought on by lockdowns, remote working and staff illness – and all the business uncertainty that went with it – were huge. They had to think on their feet, firefighting multiple challenges at once. Added to that, they were suddenly under the spotlight like never before. They didn’t just have to lead – they had to be seen to be leading.

In the early days of the crisis I read many articles about ‘the dos and don’ts of leading during Covid-19’. The key message was communicate. Leaders were urged to be open and honest about what was happening, to keep people up to date, to engage and reassure people – to be a source of hope, as Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, said back in March 2020.

And how were they encouraged to do this? Via social media of course. What better way was there to communicate remotely with an often large and varied audience?

The pandemic was, in many ways, the moment when social leadership came into its own. It was the point when the value of social media as a leadership tool became blindingly obvious.

Sadly, too many CEOs, business owners and other leaders were totally unprepared. Suddenly they were being told to ‘use social media to communicate,’ but didn’t have a clue where to start or – more worryingly – how to go about it. What should they say? What if they said the wrong thing?

Some adapted quickly, setting up personal Twitter accounts or upping their game on LinkedIn. Most, however, did nothing and simply relied on their organisation’s existing communication teams to get the message out.

The irony is that, long before Covid-19, leaders were being urged to ‘get social’. Many of the contributors to my book have been writing, teaching about and practicing social leadership for years.

In her chapter, Michelle Carvill writes: “Communication is personal. There’s an expectation from audiences, both internal and external, to have more direct and open conversations with the people who lead them or who lead the organisations they care about or buy from.”

Although the pandemic is now starting to feel like history, more crises have come along to take its place. From the tragic killing of George Floyd and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement to the war in Ukraine – and all the upheaval that has brought – social, political and economic uncertainty now seem the norm.

Michelle’s message above has therefore never been more relevant.

Dr Jen Frahm and Jillian Reilly describe a new kind of leadership – ‘exploratory leadership’ – one better suited to unknown futures and more equipped to deal with a crisis. We’ve had adaptive leadership, servant leadership and agile leadership. Now, Jen and Gillian argue, it’s time for a rethink:

“Every time our external circumstances change and embed as a sustainable change (i.e. not just a blip, spike or something fleeting) we need to adapt as an evolutionary response. We need to step into unknown circumstances and navigate novelty as a way of doing business. We need to adopt an explorer’s mindset.”

Crises often arrive quickly, with little time to prepare. We therefore need leaders who understand that uncertainty is the new norm and who have the skills, understanding – and mindset – to use social media to maximum effect every day.

Every year the Edelman Trust Barometer is published. Described as ‘the world’s most robust exploration of trust in business, government, NGOs and media, surveying more than 34,000 respondents in 28 markets’, it’s an important bell-weather report for leaders.

One of the most important and consistent findings in the 2022 report is the desire from respondents for CEOs to speak out about important societal issues. It states that 80% of the general population want CEOs to be personally visible when discussing public policy with external stakeholders or work their company has done to benefit society. In particular, CEOs are expected to shape conversation and policy on jobs and the economy (76%), wage inequity (73%), technology and automation (74%) and global warming and climate change (68%).

Both employees and the public now expect CEOs and leaders to stand up and take the lead. They want them to speak out about issues they care about – not just profits, market share, share price, donations, or whatever other metrics leaders regard as important. There is a desire for leaders to demonstrate their humanity, to be seen as trustworthy – to be authentic.

If you embrace social media, you can become one of the growing band of connected leaders who are more effective and trusted, crisis or no crisis.

I’ll finish with a quote from Sarah Walker-Smith, CEO of British law firm Shakespeare Martineau:

“Authenticity, building trust and the need to be able to connect to an increasingly wide range of people and differing mindsets is becoming the heart of a CEO role. This is in part because of social media, but also because of the need for greater direction and hope in an increasingly fast paced and volatile world.”

Are you ready to embrace the challenge?