The social chief executive Article icon


The news that Jamie Dimon, chief executive of American banking giant JP Morgan Chase, had apparently joined Twitter, prompted a flurry of criticism after his initial tweet simply stated We are excited to announce that our CEO James Dimon has joined Twitter. This account is managed by the Global Media Relations Department.

Where was the authenticity, asked the baying tweeters. Or the humour that marked billionaire fund manager Warren Buffett’s arrival on the microblogging site? Warren is in the house, the octogenarian announced on 13 May last year, although sadly, since then, he has been ‘in the house’ just five times, to the disappointment of his 891,000 followers.

But their criticism, it seems, was misplaced. The @JPMorganCEO feed was subsequently unveiled as a parody account. The clues were there at the start: it had no verification, used a readily accessible image and was already following more than 1,100 financial journalists and news organisations.

Had it been authentic, Dimon would have been the 42nd chief executive of a Fortune 500 company to have joined Twitter. However, with the exception of Ralph Lauren, chief executive of Polo Ralph Lauren, and Jack Salzwedel, chief executive of American Family Insurance Group, few could be deemed as active, averaging just 0.47 tweets a day.

The story is relatively similar over this side of the Atlantic. Business may be increasingly social, with 90 of the FTSE 100 companies running official Twitter accounts, according to research by agency Battenhall, but the bosses at the top remain remarkably aloof.

Just 11 chief executives of FTSE 100 companies have their own Twitter accounts, according to exclusive research by CorpComms Magazine, and just six tweet regularly or consistently.

And since joining the microblogging site, these 11 chief executives have sent just 3,500 tweets in total and accrued only 20,000 followers between them – 15,500 of whom follow one account, Sebastian James, chief executive of Dixons Carphone.

Only eight of these chief executives have added a picture to their profile to make them identifiable to followers, while just two have an officially verified account.

But why are the chief executives of Britain’s leading companies so anti-social, when the businesses they lead are embracing social to communicate with a wide range of stakeholders, from staff to customers and shareholders? There are a number of reasons that bosses tend to avoid the social media limelight, explains Katy Howell, chief executive of social media consultancy Immediate Future.

‘Firstly, it might be that no one has shown the chief executive the value of being on Twitter, or the risk that they face in not being involved,’ she explains. ‘CEOs are busy people, and it’s hard to understand the value of social unless it’s explained to you.

‘The second reason might be that no one has trained them. You have to build CEOs’ confidence in how to use Twitter. If the corporate communications team doesn’t see social media as integral to their day-to-day work, how will they be able teach their CEO to be social?’

James Thomlinson, managing director at digital consultancy Bell Pottinger Wired, agrees: ‘The FTSE 100 companies have over the past few years been very slow to take up Twitter themselves. It’s only now that companies are seeing the value that there is to be had in being on Twitter. It does take a leap of faith for the CEO to put their head above the parapet. Companies want to do it step by step, and take the time to be strategic about what they’re doing.’

But it can also depend on the individual, argues Alex Pearmain, managing director, digital and social media at communications agency Brands2Life. ‘If the CEO is already a good communicator, then they will make a good tweeter,’ he says. ‘Strategically it means that they value comms, and therefore they will gravitate towards social because they understand this shift that’s happening.

‘If communications is not a priority for them though, it’s unlikely that they will jump on to Twitter. You can turn traditional media on and off: what deters CEOs from social is that they are required to have an ongoing presence and to show their personality.’

Should chief executives be on Twitter at all, or is it a channel best left to the communications team? ‘There’s always a debate to be had as to whether the CEO should be on social media,’ admits Thomlinson. ‘I’m a big believer that what the CEO does affects the reputation and the share price of the company – the two are inherently linked.’

‘You have to ask Why aren’t CEOs on social, when their responsibility is corporate reputation?’ questions Howell. ‘The stats show that a CEO that’s social is one that’s trusted. In a crisis scenario, the CEO is front and centre. At this point, to have no voice at all on social is not a good place to be.

‘Good CEOs should be considering themselves as thought leaders. Most FTSE 100 CEOs are interesting people: their stakeholders want to hear what they have to say. Social gives the chance for the people at the top to gain an understanding of their customers. It’s a chance for CEOs to really have their finger on the pulse.’

And a social media presence can engage not just customers, but also employees, she argues. ‘For staff, if the wider public know of your CEO, it can make you very proud to work for your company – just look at Sir Richard Branson [founder and chairman of Virgin Group, and prolific tweeter], there’s a real pride in working for him. Social gives employees the feeling of access to the CEO.’

But there are risks that come with expanding your online presence, warns Andrew Williams, director at business advisory firm FTI Consulting. ‘I think open communication is crucial to being a modern CEO. That said, Twitter is not suited to every CEO. If a CEO is keen and au fait with the platform, it can work really well,’ he explains.

‘The CEO has to appear natural and authentic. It has to be the person themselves tweeting; it can’t be the comms team. And the CEO should be fully committed and prepared to weather the storm in times of crisis. They’ll have to withstand criticism, which on Twitter is often very personal.’

Because the chief executive is the figurehead for their company, the risks that Twitter presents are heightened, argues Thomlinson. ‘You have to be incredibly careful, because just one flippant comment or even a typo can make the whole company look bad. In an ideal world the CEO will use Twitter to produce content which shows their character and personality – it’s important to get these across. But in a position of such high profile, they need to be very careful.’

Authenticity is one issue that the FTSE 100 chief executives have yet to come to terms with. Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid, has an official Twitter account which is run by his PR team, with tweets written by Holliday himself marked SH. Is it best to allow the chief exec to have full reign over their Twitter account, with all the risks this might entail, or to let the PR team take control thereby relinquishing that all-important authenticity?

‘Many of the FTSE 100 CEOs are superb orators,’ argues Howell. ‘They have a real passion for business. They might have a fear of saying the wrong thing, but it’s just a case of implementing media training and planning ahead, as you would with if you were putting your CEO on television.’

Pearmain agrees. ‘There are risks, but they are no bigger than those on any other active comms programme,’ he explains. ‘Moving on to social should be an informed decision, made with the support of knowledgeable comms professionals.’

However, Twitter might not necessarily be the right platform for all chief executives. ‘The CEO has to make a strategic decision based on the nature of their business,’ says Pearmain. ‘If the business is customerfacing, where you have a tangible audience, it is a good thing to be on social media. But in businesses where there is no end public customer, for example in the mining industry, there is no real need for engagement on social, and being on Twitter can just lead to you becoming a target for protestors. You’ve got to think Who it is that I’m talking to?

Williams disagrees. ‘It’s more about the individual than the industry. You’d think that B2C or tech companies need to be on Twitter but actually it comes down to whether the individual is happy to be on Twitter or not. CEOs have a wide ranging audience, so the industry they are in isn’t always an indicator of whether they should be on Twitter.’

Other existing platforms might even present better options for chief executives to be social while avoiding some of the pitfalls associated with Twitter. For example, LinkedIn is a more professional social network which offers chief executives a greater degree of control over their profiles. The expansion of LinkedIn’s Influencer platform, which allows selected ‘thought leaders’ to share original, longer-form content with followers, is one option which may appeal to chief executives. Another is blogging, perhaps on the company’s website or corporate blog.

‘I’d definitely say to think beyond Twitter,’ advises Pearmain. ‘LinkedIn is a platform where you get all the benefits of engagement, with fewer of the risks that Twitter brings. CEOs can share their insights in longer form, and be part of the shift towards content marketing, which is all about getting good quality thoughts out there.’

Just one in five FTSE 100 chief executives have active LinkedIn profiles, and only four of these have more than 500 connections. A further nine have inactive or incomplete profiles. Just two chief executives, WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell and Standard Chartered’s Peter Sands, are official LinkedIn Influencers with 114,000 and 9,700 followers respectively. And only 11 chief executives write for their company website or blog, and even then with varying degrees of regularity.

‘If CEOs are using social media, they need to embrace it,’ warns Thomlinson. ‘It can’t be a halfway house. If they don’t have their pictures and their bios up there then it reflects badly. Social needs to be done wholeheartedly with a plan behind it. The messaging and tone of voice all have to be on brand.’

‘There’s nothing worse than starting and stopping on Twitter,’ agrees Williams. ‘It can’t be a fad: you have to be in it for the long term.’ Is it likely that, in the future, more chief executives will begin to embrace social media? ‘There will definitely be an increase in the number of CEOs on Twitter,’ predicts Thomlinson. ‘There’s already an increase in the amount of Investor Relations activity via Twitter. As the market for this matures, we will see more FTSE 100 companies and their chief executives tweeting. But it will probably be down the route whereby the PR team sends a disclaimer that they’re behind the CEO, so that what they say can be controlled.’

‘Many PR professionals still lack digital skills, so they aren’t yet in a position to actively recommend that their chief executive should be on Twitter,’ says Pearmain. ‘There will be a generational shift over the coming years: as both PR professionals and their CEOs become more comfortable on Twitter, absolutely we’ll see more CEOs moving on there.

‘It might also be that other executive members could be better placed to be on Twitter. For example, the chief technology officer (CTO) will have a more specific audience, who are more deeply engaged on social. The CTO doesn’t have a traditional channel to engage their audience, as the CEO does, so Twitter is a great way to get to this smaller, focused, specific audience.’

‘It might take a while, and CEOs certainly don’t need to be on every social platform ever,’ says Howell. ‘You need to measure the results of it and show these results to the CEO, and they will then be more likely to continue to use social. You do need buy-in at the start, but you need to maintain this buy-in all the way through by showing your CEO the value that social can bring.’

It seems like it will just be a matter of time before chief executives follow in the steps of the companies they lead and begin to tweet on a regular basis. Perhaps they can add ‘personal tweeter’ to their list of demands, along with corner office, company car and medical benefits?


Ronan Dunne, chief executive of Telefonica UK, owner of mobile phone operators O2, is viewed as one of the most social in the business, gaining more than 17,000 followers since he joined Twitter in December 2011.

His biography reads: Tweeting the insider’s view of leading a digital services business (+rugby/football sometimes!). For latest O2 news & help, say Hi to @O2.

Dunne views Twitter as an instant way to virtually ‘walk the floors’ by seeing what customers think, feel and do first hand, and is known to regularly scour the site between 8pm and 10pm. It is also a personal, time-effective and meaningful way for him to engage with key influencers from the worlds of media, politics and technology.

His first tweet, on 1 January 2012, was a retweet of an @O2Music tweet, containing video highlights of a New Year’s Eve concert by Kasabian at the O2 venue in London.

@RonanDunneO2 has since tweeted almost 2,500 times. About 36 per cent of this activity has been retweets while 17 per cent contain links. About one third of Dunne’s Twitter activity is original content, comprising a mixture of personal information and interests, such as rugby, Arsenal, Ireland and his daughter Charlotte, and insights into digital innovation and technology.

Dunne is also active in promoting content in which he has a personal interest, such as digital skills and Think Big, an O2 project to provide money, support and training to young people, aged between 13 and 25, with ideas to improve their local communities.

Nicola Green, director of communications and reputation at Telefonica UK, said that Dunne believes ‘it is important for chief executives to embrace Twitter as it is where your customers are’, and also is keen to use Twitter to help people understand that chief executives are people too. ‘The more people understand the pressures, decisions and challenges he faces, the better he can be at setting the direction for the business and the industry,’ she says.

Dunne has also encouraged other board members to get involved, stressing that they should not be scared of the platform but should instead set clear expectations, both internally and externally, on why they are using Twitter and what they should expect. Dunne ‘doesn’t get a lot of RTs,’ says Green. ‘But his network has a huge amount of reach, so he doesn’t always need a lot of volume to generate significant reach.’