Strategy

Are you sure you really want to tweet that, boss?

Worried that an indiscreet comment will lead to viral infamy? You may be shortchanging your company.

Peter Aceto recently informed his 3,785 Twitter followers that his daughter had just scored her first goal (in which sport, we don’t know). The tweet is typical of the millions of random updates and opinions posted to the site each day. But what’s unusual is that Aceto is the CEO of ING Direct Canada.

He’s a rarity among the C-suite ranks, who tend to view social media with caution and skepticism. A recent report from global public-relations firm Weber Shandwick found that 64% of CEOs at the world’s 50 largest companies have no social media presence and only 8% have Twitter accounts. There are good reasons for this. CEOs are busy people, and voicing opinions to the world is a risky activity when your statements are scrutinized by the press and the markets. The fear is that an unfiltered CEO can do a lot of damage to shareholder value.

But eschewing social media is the wrong response, says Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist. “Social media is really about creating credibility. It’s important to develop a human face for your company.” Assuming the CEO is personable, there is no better face for that role.

That was part of the logic behind Aceto’s Twitter account and blog at ING. “The behaviour of a small handful of irresponsible leaders over the last two decades has hurt the overall trust level in corporations,” he says. “That’s why I felt my personal involvement in being transparent would be important for our brand.” Aceto is prolific on Twitter, posting at least five times a day about his activities and company events, and occasionally addressing customer issues.

Mike Pratt, president of Best Buy Canada, is more focused in his approach, mostly posting videos to his Twitter account in response to customer questions. “It’s a great way for us to help our customers navigate technology,” he says, “and video is a personal approach that allows me to engage with them differently.”

A CEO may also see a way to exploit social media that others in the organization fail to spot. When a rival of Toronto marketing automation company Eloqua was acquired a few months ago, Eloqua CEO Joseph Payne took to the blog to point out only the intellectual property had been bought, not the customer base. If any of those customers were unhappy with the change, Eloqua was there to help, he offered. “I don’t think a communications person would have the savvy to look at that deal and see a major marketing opportunity,” says April Dunford, founder of Rocket Launch Marketing in Toronto.

Dunford has experience with executives and social media, having assisted with the blog of former Nortel Networks chief technology officer John Roese, which launched in 2007. The blog didn’t stave off Nortel’s demise, but it did allow the company to get its story out when besieged by a hostile press.

Executives’ fears of saying the wrong thing or having a statement taken out of context are largely overblown, Dunford argues. CEOs are likely to be better than most at staying on message and away from touchy topics. “They face this issue whenever they talk to reporters, investors and customers,” she says. “Part of what got them the job is knowing how to act.”

Some chief executives see benefits to courting controversy online, especially when combativeness is part of their persona. For example, Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and chairman of television channel HDNet, regularly vents on Twitter. He was even fined US$25,000 last year by the National Basketball Association for bashing referees.

But Cuban, whose enterprises are private, doesn’t have to answer to shareholders. Public company CEOs need to maintain a balance between building an open image and appearing to waste shareholders’ money by blogging and tweeting on company time. Partly for this reason, George Colony, head of Forrester Research, who’s given talks on “the social CEO,” advises top executives to adopt a light approach. He blogged recently that about 12 Twitter posts and six blog posts a year is enough for CEOs to develop an online profile. He also suggests explaining in the About section that updates will be infrequent, so followers know what to expect and investors are reassured the focus is on running the company.

Social media is not for every chief executive, Dunford says, since not all will have worthwhile things to say. But for those with interesting insights, there are valuable opportunities. “Any CEO not taking advantage is nuts,” she says.