Reporting on the Social Media Week panel debate at Bloomberg London about ‘the social CEO’ seemed an appropriate follow up to my Are you (anti-) social? post. The CEOs we heard from were all advocates of social media and its role in driving the transformation from traditional to digital business.

The panel:

  • Tim Weller (@wellertimothy), CEO, Incisive Media,
  • Jane Wilson (@thatwilsonwoman), CEO, Chartered Institute of Public Relations
  • Ian Shepherd (@IanAShepherd), Co-Founder and CEO, Crowdsource Ltd (formerly CEO, Game Group PLC)
  • Julie Meyer (@JulieMarieMeyer), Founder and Chief Executive, Ariadne Capital

What struck me about the panel was a shared desire to be perceived on social media not as early adopters or gurus but as real people representing themselves, whilst also representing the views and values of the businesses they lead. Authenticity is an imperative.

It was the view of all panellists that social media is a chance for direct, front-line communication with customers, staff and stakeholders. This puts an interesting spin on the idea that most CEOs are too busy running the business to get involved in social media. Too busy to talk to staff and customers?

Another barrier to getting involved with social media is the embarrassment factor. The panel appeared to have long since stopped worrying about making fools of themselves. They were however quick to point out there’s no talk of what they ate for lunch or their off-springs’ potty training antics on their social profiles; just genuine insight into real business issues and, in Tim Weller’s case at least, the odd comment about cricket.

Julie Meyer put forward the opinion that social media are just tools that facilitate productivity, like laptops and mobile phones. The key is in understanding how to use the tools we have at our disposal to achieve desired business outcomes. If that means soaking up the social know-how of your 17-year old apprentice, so be it.

Panel members offered examples of where active participation on social media has delivered benefits. Jane Wilson used social networks alongside traditional marketing channels as crisis management tools when sensitive CIPR data was left on a train. The company’s proactive approach was widely appreciated by CIPR members, earning them respect that outweighed any criticism.

Ian Shepherd was humbled by the supportive messages he received on Twitter when Game Group went into administration. Having communicated openly with staff and the public throughout the difficult period, he was met with empathy and treated as a person first and foremost by media, employees and the public.

Tim Weller turned to Twitter to publicise the fact that he’d been “stitched-up” by a well-known journalist, to ensure that readers could form their own opinions on the article. Weller also highlighted the value of using social tools like Yamma to breakdown silos within the business and nurture collaboration.

Overall the panel agreed that the main benefit of social media is that it allows each of them to be an ambassador for their business and to be seen publically to be leading. In response to the question of why CEOs should use social media, Ian Shepherd responded: “Why would you miss an opportunity to speak directly to your stakeholders and prospects?”

In 10 years’ time it will no doubt be laughable that we even assembled at Social Media Week to discuss the value of social media to business leaders. If you’re still not convinced, follow the panel on Twitter and see how they do it.

Some tips from the panel (and The Crocodile):

  • Learn by doing
  • Be authentic
  • Use your own tone of voice (don’t hide behind corporate language)
  • Be relevant
  • Have an open door policy with employees, media etc.
  • Be open
  • Respond in a timely manner
  • Be brave