Twitter has become an essential communication platform for politicians, celebrities and individuals to get their own message out. For some, it’s liberating and a place to have a voice where they otherwise may not have one. But for CEOs, C-suite Executives and Directors, it’s a landmine to navigate correctly. Unfortunately, the nature of Twitter means wherever you are with your phone, you can send out a Tweet. This could be at your desk with careful thought and attention and maybe even advice and counsel from people you trust. Or, it might be in the wee hours of the morning when you can’t sleep, are reacting emotionally to something you read and you aren’t completely at your best.
If an employee Tweeted something about your company without authorization, he or she could be subject to discipline or even fired if it jeopardized a critical company initiative. But what happens when it’s your CEO or a board member? As soon as a poorly written Tweet comes out, the media can pick up on it and spread it faster than Twitter itself.
Of course, the most obvious example is the CEO of the United States, President Trump, who uses Twitter as his own personal unfiltered communication platform. While some of his messages are simple and straightforward, many are cringeworthy even for his strongest supporters. Amplified in traditional media, his Tweets are frequently used against him and his agenda.
Elon Musk recently announced via Twitter his intent to take Tesla private including announcing a share price stating “funding secured.” While the SEC has moved swiftly to investigate violations of securities laws, the CEO clearly took the matter into his own hands. Did his board know what he was doing? Now that he is walking back from that position, what should they do now?
After a scandalous viral social media event where a passenger was physically and violently removed kicking and screaming from a United Airlines flight so that two flight attendants could travel to their next location instead of the passenger, the CEO tweeted a seemingly unaware message that was not sensitive to the situation. The alarming part of his tweet was that he “apologize[d] for having to re-accommodate these customers.” The sad part is, he probably did carefully think about this one, but didn’t have a strong enough grasp of the situation or how society now responds in a social media context. It was completely tone deaf.
A couple of years ago, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure started a war of words on Twitter with rival T-Mobile chief John Legere. Sprint continued the drama by citing a study placing them in third place in overall performance on CNBC. Legere lashed out on Twitter stating “I get that you’re proud of this bullshit, antiquated report, but you still came in 4th.” While some may argue that this exchange brought both companies a lot of free publicity, it is one indication of how a CEO or senior executive without counsel or board input could start a social-media tempest.
There are countless examples of business leaders who fall prey to Twitter’s seduction, unable to stop themselves. And, the media is all to happy to plaster those Tweets all over, again and again, even if they are deleted. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. Even for a lower profile CEO who may not be covered in the media outside of earnings calls, one Tweet could be used against you and the company years later when there’s a crisis.
At what point is it time for the board to step in? You wouldn’t allow your CEO to stand at a podium surrounded by cameras and give off the cuff remarks that could violate SEC rules, offend large groups of people, rip on a competitor CEO or be so obviously tone deaf to a bad decision by employees or policies that need updating, so why would you allow him or her to rant on social media?
You shouldn’t. We are reaching a point where social media is no longer some new and novel platform that we don’t yet understand. It’s been around for well over ten years. And while it can certainly be a tool for getting a message out, responding to disgruntled customers or responding to important issues, a rogue CEO, board member or any employee for that matter should not have the latitude to simply say whatever they want. Companies need to not just have social media policies, but actually enforce them and train people on the new rules of the road.
That said, there’s a lot of value in Twitter and other social media and a holistic company strategy by your communications professionals with advice from your General Counsel makes sense with the right oversight. But for everyone else, consider a few important points.
In My Personal Capacity. A lot of people seem to think that if they state their Tweets are in their personal capacity they can say what they want without ramifications to their company or jobs. That might work if you’re a line employee somewhere deep in the ranks, but if you are in the c-suite or really at any senior level where you publicly speak on behalf of the company at conferences or associations, you don’t get the liberty of distinguishing between your personal views and company views. The media won’t make that distinction and the social media world of twitter trolls most certainly will not. So, if you have a fiduciary duty to your company, your shareholders and employees, accept that you have a responsibility and as a result don’t have the luxury of posting on social media in your personal capacity.
Social Media Policy. You may already have a company policy in place, but it is likely time to revisit it given the current landscape of social media and cultural shifts. Your legal team and human resources need to work together to consider what’s needed for the company and for employees to use social media (this needs to be cross functional to get the best possible understanding and outcome – it should not be siloed in human resources). As a general rule, your board, senior executives and particularly your CEO should have a different set of guidelines and more personalized training.
Actually Enforce the Policy. This sounds simple enough, but if employees realize you don’t enforce the social media policy or monitor what they are doing, they eventually will forget about it or simply disregard it. This is just like training employees against phishing emails. Training one time over lunch is not enough. You need to regularly train and remind them and actually have some consequences if you fail to follow the policy.
Audit & Evaluate Objectively. Every year, hire an outside objective expert to assess your social media policy, look at how your employees and senior executives are actually using social media and offer advice to you on whether or not your policy is still current and/or you are enforcing it. If you’ve never done this exercise, you might be surprised and alarmed by what you learn. It may also alert you to a potential inside cybersecurity threat you never saw coming.
Crisis Communication Planning and Responsiveness. Social media is most useful during a crisis or emergency situation because it allows for messages to get out to customers, employees and the public rapidly. A social media policy directly dealing with a crisis should be developed and reviewed regularly by the board and senior executives with human resources, communications and your legal department so everyone is clear on the plan in the event of a crisis. There should be a clear chain of command in issuing social media posts and drills should be run to practice and prepare.
Social media has changed our culture and will continue to shape how people think. We have reached a tipping point of business leaders taking to Twitter to express their personal views. It’s no longer about just becoming aware of it and drafting a policy, it’s about governance and responsibility and more thoughtful oversight than just a few lines in an employee handbook.
If you’re interested in learning more about blockchain, digital disruption, futurecasting, and managing social media at the c-suite or board level, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to customize a briefing or program to meet your needs. You can also reach me directly at 513.746.2801.