CEOs Going Social: An Interview with Leslie Gaines-Ross of Weber Shandwick

How social is your CEO?

Weber Shandwick‘s recently released follow-up to its 2010 study “Socializing Your CEO: From (Un)social to Social” doesn’t contain many earth-shattering revelations or statistics that will inspire double takes. But its findings do provide evidence of a shift toward sociability among CEOs across the business spectrum that will only increase over the next few years.

Also: In the future, many of these executives will spend more time working with internal communications teams or third-party PR firms to maximize the impact of their social activities.

Some key conclusions:

  • 66% of consumers say their perceptions of CEOs affect their impressions of companies and the products these companies sell.
  • Overall usage of social networks among the CEOs of the world’s largest companies barely changed from 2010-12, going from 16% to 18%, but…
  • “Sociability” stats exploded: In 2010, only 38% of CEOs could be described as “social”. In 2012 that number was 66%.

What does this mean? We recently spoke to Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputational strategist at Weber Shandwick, to find out.

Gaines-Ross explains that social was still “seen as fairly new and considered risky” in 2010, while in 2012 executives have finally grown more comfortable in realizing that they “have some control over social platforms.”

Weber Shandwick defines “sociability” as a CEO’s engagement with “online visibility activities” ranging from the standard Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest lineup to company pages and YouTube channels. So despite the fact that only 18% of the CEOs at these top 50 companies have public social networking profiles, many are active in different ways:

  • Social plays a big part in shaping corporate reputations: 81% of CEOs of the world’s “most reputable” companies are socially engaged vs. 66% at all companies in the top 50
  • Video is the preferred method of social engagement for CEOs: 40% of study subjects appeared in company videos.
  • 50% of CEOs now engage through their companies’ websites.

Why have the sociability numbers jumped up so quickly? According to Gaines-Ross, executives have begun to realize what they might lose by not being more social:

“These are the largest companies in the world, and they have employees all over the globe. Now they can reach many different kinds of stakeholders including those employees, investors and members of the media in a timely and cost-effective manner. They’ve recognized that they really need to put a face on the company brand and use it to set the direction in order to get everyone motivated and ‘on board.'”

Sociability isn’t just important to investors, consumers and existing teams: it’s also crucial to maintaining competitive advantage in the job market.

“Being social is a way of saying ‘we’re an innovative company that’s open and transparent.’ It’s a very important way to attract talent, because everyone is competing for the same highly skilled employees.”

In other words, the blank-slate corporate head honcho is quickly becoming a thing of the past. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that every executive should aspire to be a social media “influencer.”

“Most often when people think ‘Social CEO’ they think of tech people like Richard Branson. But the CEO himself becomes a brand when he’s the founder and company owner who is always out there in front of the public.”

So most CEOs shouldn’t worry about becoming “thought leaders” like Branson–and they don’t have to tweet ten times a day to be relevant, either. Video, for example, is the new “hot spot” for social executives:

“It’s the perfect social medium: you can re-purpose, edit, share and spread any of your content without even leaving your office. It’s a great way to humanize your company and it also encourages you to be a little more conversational instead of using the usual ‘corporate speak.'”

What sort of messages should these CEOs send? And how should they formulate their social strategies? Gaines-Ross says:

“Some mention articles of interest, some respond to customer inquiries, but most use social to provide basic information to stakeholders.”

“Ask yourself: Why are you going to use these platforms? Once you decide on the reason, you should be able to decide which platform you’re going to use. It needs to be strategic. How is this going to help your business?”

What do we make of this study’s conclusions? Is the process of turning a CEO “social” a project for the PR department? And how can a more social CEO directly benefit his or her brand?