Should your CEO do social media?

George Colony, tech guru and chief executive of Forrester Research, packs an interview on Mashable with common-sense advice on how a corporate CEO should relate to social media. (Mashable is a news and opinion site devoted to Web 2.0.) The Forrester interview is a good read for investor relations staff and counselors.

Three factors are working against CEOs embracing social media, Colony says:

  • Age – the typical CEO grew up back when people talked
  • Regulatory constraints – the risks remain fuzzy around Reg FD and new media networks like Twitter (ignore Mashable’s mistake in transcribing SEC as FCC in the text)
  • Time – or the lack of it.

The Forrester chief paints this picture of what keeps most CEOs from engaging:

If you go to a CEO and say — and this is sort of conventional wisdom around being social — “We want you to make between five and six 140-character statements a day” — that’s 30 a week. “Then we want you to make one large statement per week — about four or five paragraphs.” And most CEOs would say, “There’s absolutely no way I could do that.”

There are two problems here: one is time. Calculate the time behind this and it’s about five or six hours — that’s a lot of time for a CEO. The second is that model — which has become almost an accepted model if you want to build followership — that model is unsustainable if you want to sustain quality. In other words: There’s not enough to say. There’s not enough wisdom in the world for one person to be wise over all those statements to fall over a year. That’s 1,500 short statements a year and 50 large statements a year.

Colony favors what he calls “social lite” – a focus on quality rather than quantity. A CEO might aim to post significant messages 6 to 8 times a year on a blog, and perhaps comment every 2 weeks or once a month on a short-message platform like Twitter. So when the CEO does speak, it’s a more notable event.

The Forrester chief also says CEO posts should not be written by PR people – but by the CEO. That’s the point of social media, after all – to engage personally in the conversation. To fake it isn’t authentic, to use another social media buzzword. And a CEO doesn’t get the benefit of listening if he or she isn’t even in the room.

My feeling is that public company CEOs wading into social media should get a quick review of posts from other members of the team – say, the CFO, IRO or Legal. The idea is not to scrub the humanity out of the CEO’s words – no “writing by committee” allowed. But we should bring in a second set of eyes to check facts and grammar – just to protect to CEO and the company’s brand in the marketplace.

For most businesses, I favor something more like a company presence in a blog or on Twitter and Facebook – blending voices from marketing and corporate, either funneled through a single person whose job is “telling the story” or coming from several contributors writing on different aspects of the company and its products.

Colony estimates only about 10% of CEOs are ready to do social media now. In the next 10 years, that may grow to 50%. But he urges companies not to rush it:

I would say if you’re interested, explore — but do not force it. If you do not have the proclivity to communicate, to be a little bit honest, a little bit controversial, then I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t force it.

That view jibes with where most companies are now on social media – especially firms that are not in the tech business or that have small cap resources. It’s time to listen, explore, develop skills and resources – and “go social” as you are ready.

What’s your feeling on CEOs and social media? (Click comment line below.)

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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