The Social CEO: Leveraging Your Greatest Brand Ambassador

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The CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, has often been described as unconventional, a “21st century industrialist.”  Last week on Twitter, Musk asked engineers who wanted to work on building self-driving cars to send over an email to Tesla. With nearly two thousand retweets since then, Musk’s social request has been more effective than many classified ads.

Engineers interested in working on autonomous driving, pls email autopilot@teslamotors.com. Team will report directly to me.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 18, 2013

Elon Musk didn’t turn to Twitter just for the sheer number of impressions it would garner: impressions aren’t helpful if they aren’t reaching the right people. For Musk though, his approach worked because he was reaching precisely the creative, savvy professionals he looks to bring into his companies. Tesla is a brand known to be innovative and smart, a game changer in its industry, and the CEO’s tweet was in line with exactly that.

Musk’s shrewd use of Twitter is a rarity, though. A recent BRANDFog survey found that 88% of employee respondents believed that CEOs using social media could “raise the profile of the corporate brand,” and 69% said that “C-Suite social media engagement make a brand seem more honest and trustworthy.” Yet, “only 3.8% of all Fortune 500 CEOs are actually using Twitter regularly,” according to CEO.com’s 2013 Social CEO Report.

A CEO can be the most influential brand ambassador for a firm, if he or she approaches social media strategically. The point is not to spout canned messages: honest perspective and voice are crucial. But the unique viewpoint and credible information that a CEO shares must also be in context with his or her firm’s brand. Because a genuine and active presence on social media can enhance a CEO’s relationship with a variety of target audiences – be it recruits, employees, prospects, clients, the media, or even investors – the messaging must be aligned with the messaging of the company itself. Similarly, as Twitter writes on its own blog, “for CEOs being on Twitter is about more than being where the audience is. As the research highlights, it is about setting the tone for the company.” The post goes on to quote Darren Childs, CEO of UKTV, who says that aside from informing the world of what’s “going on with the company, . . . it also works with the staff as a great communication tool to let them know that 1) engaged media is very important for our future, and 2) what’s at the top of my agenda.”

Some CEOs are (justifiably) concerned about joining social media: Twitter mentions CEO Jacqueline Gold’s worries about “saying the wrong thing, looking a fool or upsetting people.” But Gold made the leap and now finds that “Twitter provides great opportunities for brands to engage with customers
. . . [and] has helped redefine brand perception.”

For a CEO, a successful presence on social media is one that offers genuine thoughts and insights, while remaining consistent with their firm’s brand. We’ve said previously that “no one wants to read meaningless drivel,” so being authentically engaged in one’s online community is vital. In the digital age, companies are becoming more and more transparent, and customers, employees, and investors are becoming more and more interested in the personas leading those companies. Social media offers – indeed, social media created – that window, and CEOs can leverage it to help define, support, and contextualize their firm’s brand.

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