First published in the Sunday Times on 22nd March 2015.
Should bosses use social media? Many marketing experts say every 21st-century leader must communicate directly with customers, shareholders, peers and the public by digital means. But many senior executives shun it.
I have notionally been using Twitter since 2009, but I started engaging with it properly only this year. Often it feels like a self-indulgent distraction, but there are occasions when I learn useful facts or make valuable connections. I shall continue until I get bored, make a serious gaffe or decide that it is an unproductive habit.
Only seven FTSE 100 chief executives are active on Twitter, an analysis revealed. They are generally in technology or media — so the leaders of Sage, ARM and Pearson are participants. I suspect this general absence is partly a generational matter: most corporate chief executives are over 50, and social media tends to be dominated by younger users. It may well be that institutional investors, analysts, regulators and venture capitalists don’t care about social media — or see it as riddled with pitfalls, or just embarrassing.
Bosses might argue that they simply don’t have time to tweet or look at a Twitter feed all day. I see their point: if you want to become a seriously active tweeter, it probably takes at least an hour a day. LinkedIn is considered more of a business tool, but chief executives complain they are besieged by job applicants there.
Executives are probably also nervous that they will make a mistake on Twitter. Almost all public communications by directors are highly mediated by PR advisers, but usually Twitter is not. Moreover, Twitter aficionados reckon manufactured messages don’t work: tweets must be an authentic voice.
Top executives have been fired for being indiscreet on social media. Gene Morphis was sacked as finance chief of the American fashion retailer Francesca’s after inappropriate remarks on Facebook and ill-judged tweets.
Nevertheless, some very big shots are busy on Twitter: Rupert Murdoch of Fox and this newspaper, the corporate raider Carl Icahn, Tony Fernandes of Air Asia, billionaire Lord Ashcroft, Helena Morrissey of the investment manager Newton and Tim Cook of Apple are all fairly frequent tweeters. Sir Richard Branson of Virgin is in a league of his own: he either spends a lot of his time on Twitter or has help. I suspect being a good tweeter requires plenty of confidence — and probably vanity. Of course, both traits are common among business leaders.
Critics ask, what is the point of broadcasting 140-character messages? Fans respond that Twitter can be used to promote news, build a brand, praise staff, deal with complaints and reveal a personality. It is instant, free and democratic. And too many corporate leaders are faceless, especially to younger customers. The world wants to know who runs business. Twitter is one way to forge a sort of relationship.
Entrepreneurs are much more common on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram and Google+. They rarely have giant advertising budgets to sell their brands, and are less paranoid about media coverage than corporate types. Michael Acton Smith of Moshi Monsters, King of Shaves’ Will King and Brent Hoberman are among the better participants. Social media such as Twitter is a competitive advantage for emerging, founder-led companies. It tends to ring hollow when used by big, established organisations.
The importance of social media for business can be overstated, though. The received wisdom is that “socially active” chief executives are somehow more innovative and modern, yet most of the activity on such sites is self-serving flimflam. Users must wade through endless inconsequential clichés to find the worthwhile nuggets. Moreover, a lot of business must be conducted confidentially — face to face or by phone is the way to achieve that.
Amazingly, some tycoons don’t even use email. For example, Sheldon Adelson, the 81-year-old gambling magnate, says: “I don’t have a computer.” He’s worth £19bn, so he must be doing something right. Also, Hank Paulson, former US Treasury secretary and head of Goldman Sachs, never used email. Given all the complicated negotiations over the bailouts when he was in charge, his old-fashioned approach may well have been wise.
Political leaders are frequently heavy Twitter users, because they trade in votes and opinions. By contrast, business managers and owners focus on making products and profits. Business is not a popularity contest where the public support a personality; entrepreneurs don’t have to be liked or even found interesting by customers. Hence bosses who prefer anonymity should definitely avoid Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so forth.
Being a celebrity business leader suits only certain individuals — for them, social media can be a powerful tool. As for the rest, they should probably not join in — or, at the very least, take considerable care if they do.