The Four Half-Truths of Social Media’s Value to C-Suite Executives


Like other well-hyped fads in the marketing industry, as social networks mature opportunities are emerging to cull their value from their hype. Despite what new-media evangelists would have you believe, featuring your C-suite executives on social media networks is more complicated than it appears. The fact that social media outlets offer easy opportunities for broad access to audiences is the very reason to carefully review the business rationale before doing so.

Should your executives use social media, or shouldn’t they?

As a starting point, we’ve highlighted below four half-truths that routinely creep into this discussion and provide a sobering counter-point to the buoyant enthusiasm that often dominates these discussions.

It is their ease of entry and access that cause social networks to bring with them high levels of risk for a large number of organizations. There’s more to the decision-making process than outlining the risks and benefits and seeing which list is longest. The special sauce is in doing baseline research and strategic planning, and thinking about the variables objectively.

Half-truth #1: “We can use social media to get our messages out there right away.”

If a tree falls in the forest, as goes the axiom, does anyone hear it? Sure, a post need only take minutes to develop and disseminate.

But, with social networks, the onus is on the user to convince the community they are there to add substantive information to the existing dialogue.

While there are people who use social networks just for the sake of saying they’re there – who collect connections without really communicating with them – those connections do not translate into any tangible benefit for executives or for anyone else. They’re latent users, lying indefinitely dormant.

For the vast majority of C-level executives it takes a long time to build up adequate social infrastructure to give your posts true power. It takes even longer to prove your executives’ credibility to the various social network communities. They want to know that you’re there to stay, and not just plugging your organization for a brief period of time only to fall silent when it becomes convenient or necessary.

Half-Truth #2: “It’s easy to learn, so it must be easy to do well.”

Another common half-truth centers on accessibility. Social media advocates point to the increasing simplicity and usability of the networks as evidence that use should be rampant among executives.

While the operational aspects of social networks – how to send a Tweet, for instance, or how to find out if your business associates are using Facebook – are easy for any would-be user to learn, success in using them is always going to bridge back to content.

It’s not a normal course of action for executives to go out to the marketplace with unchecked, stream-of-consciousness content. In fact, our research (link to Social Media Survey) shows that sophisticated buyers of B2B services look for quite the opposite: less-frequent, smart and well-thought-out content, which helps inform their opinion and influence their referrals for high-value business services.

Half-Truth #3: “Social media gives our executives a platform to talk about our company’s wins.”

Social media is an ongoing dialogue with the public that is never entirely complete. This is not a philosophy; it’s reality.

Unfortunately, reality is wrought with many forms of controversy and bad news that people want to talk about. Executives cannot maintain credibility when they use social media channels to talk about only the things that are beneficial to their organization’s image.

Executives who are active and visible participants on social networks should be prepared to give their opinions about some hot-button issues such as executive pay, regulatory uncertainty, politics in general, and the like. Check out how the CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines violated this maxim recently, to the detriment of his organization and its shareholders.

And what happens, hypothetically, when top executives start getting direct messages on Twitter from employees?

Half-Truth #4: “Our executives are important, so they will command respect on social media.”

In a fair and equitable world, every social media user would be reasonable and professional in criticism, as well as in praise.

The fact of the matter is, the social media ecosystem has trained users to cook up content with a hearty portion of snark and sarcasm.

If your business has a negative reputation already – if it is tied to investment banking, lobbying, pharmaceuticals, airlines, or other controversy-prone industries that, deserved or not, have a negative reputation among many – then having your executives on social media may cause more problems than it solves.

And, the question of whether or not an executive, as opposed to the company, even owns his or her social networking footprint in the first place is still up in the air.

Business objectives: The reality check.

A senior executive’s involvement in social media sends a strong message to a variety of stakeholders.  However, these emerging technologies are a Pandora’s Box of unfettered access that is not immune to the law of diminishing returns.  It therefore begs the question: How much access to the C-suite is really necessary?

In fact, not many marketers would encourage an executive team to engage in an ongoing press conference that never ends. That’s how bloggers, pundits, or even traditional journalists can use the access given to them if executives are highly visible on social networks. They’ll expect quick responses, and that expectation is completely reasonable.

It is a fair, related point that social media allows executives to go on the offensive against a media marketplace that is already levying criticism. But how many business plans require this?  More importantly, is this the right platform on which to engage in such a dialogue?

Who benefits, the personality or the organization?

Similarly, one underappreciated benefit of having executives as heavy social media users is that such use amplifies existing benefits such as name recognition and a positive opinion among the public.

This is great for the rock-star CEOs that have a degree of celebrity, but not for other executives who don’t. Equally likely is social networks’ ability to amplify existing negativities. For many organizations, the pay-off just isn’t there.

Self-publishing has enabled celebrity executives, such as Mark Cuban and Richard Branson, to create individual media brands.  What is unknown is whether these efforts have provided the strategic benefits needed to strengthen their businesses and keep competitors at bay.

While we’ve observed and designed effective social media campaigns for C-suite executives to support business objectives, it’s never a one-size-fits-all strategy. An executive approach to social media, particularly within the B2B environment, needs to take into account numerous complex issues. Further, the final decision must be thought of in the context of the organization as a whole, the executives it employs, and the industry and regulatory environment in which it operates.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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