The Social CEO Part Two: CEOs Aren't Social For Good Reasons

CEOs have not embraced social for three reasons:

1) Age, 

2) Constraints specific to CEOs, and

3) The present social model is mismatched to CEOs.

The average age of the world's top 100 CEOs is 59. This places them in the "typewriter and whiteout generation" -- many years removed from AOL Instant Messaging, Facebook, text messaging, and other early and late social technologies. Current CEOs lack affinity, knowledge, and comfort with social -- limiting their usage.

CEOs face unique constraints. Their companies possess carefully crafted messages emanating from public relations, advertising campaigns, and investor relations -- a CEO could dilute or scramble these messages in a weak blog or Twitter moment. Regulatory issues surround the CEO -- Sarbanes Oxley, Regulation Full-Disclosure ("Reg FD"), FTC guidelines, European Union regulations -- which limit his ability to speak his mind. CEOs always seek to minimize risks of litigation, loss of intellectual property, offending customers, offending investors, angering employees -- all increased with a social profile. Imagine if Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, was blogging from 2004-2008 about the high quality of his company's investments -- those posts would be Exhibit A in any case against Goldman. 

Finally, the social model doesn't fit with most CEOs. Conventional wisdom says that an acceptable social profile includes six tweets/day and one blog post per week -- let's call this "social heavy." Most CEOs don't have the time or content to measure up as Seth Godin has noted. For a moment, make yourself the CMO of General Electric. Now walk into Jeff Immelt's office and tell him: "Jeff, we want you to make six short statements every day to the world, and one larger statement to the world every week." That could be a career-limiting conversation...

With the exception of a small minority of brilliant thinkers, smart social networkers, and publishing-oriented personalities, the social heavy model is a recipe for blowhardism. Think about it -- how many people do you know with the erudition to make 30 worthwhile short statements per week, and one valuable long statement per week? Einstein, a famously private individual, would have had a massively unpopular blog -- because he would have never posted. But the one post he did put up would have been the most important of the 20th century.

So we know why CEOs aren't social: 1) Age, 2) Risk and regulatory constraints, 3) Time, and 4) The social heavy model breeds blowhards -- not a place where the CEO should dwell.  Which brings us to our third question -- "Should CEOs be social?" I'll take that up in my next post.

Comments

What about other (non-top-100) CEOs?

Your argument seems to build on observations relating to the top 100 CEOs. What about the next 10,000? And CEOs of medium-sized companies? Are the same 3 or 4 reasons applicable there too?

Also, is it necessary to blog / tweet as frequently as you have suggested, for a CEO to be called social? Can't CEOs just do it a little less often ... and run their drafts through legal, perhaps, to iron out regulatory or PR wrinkles, if any?

Why does social networking have to be about business?

George, from where does the idea emanate that a CEO has to be social, and why does social media have to be about business? If a CEO is accessible to his employees and customers by any other means possible than that is good enough. If the company is a publicly traded one, than that could include shareholders, but there is the biggest risk, because his overtures can be construed to be misleading buy messages. If they are not, then he won't be CEO much longer. How weird! I see Social as being misused for business purposes. The problem is that the stock market model is a questionable gambling casino run by banks and the big investment houses. The problem is that those global - especially financial - companies are too big and that governments need these markets to fincance their debts. These problems are entirely outside the domain of social networking. It just exposes them. While a CEO is quiet because can already get sued for an ambiguous statement, why don't politicians get sued when they lie? There is a lot of duplicity in all that and social media are sort of the antithesis to those concepts.

I think Social is an overrated hype, but it has it's usefulness, just as Einstein and his peers exchanged ideas in letters and conferences a hundred years ago. It is very valuable to exchange ideas, experiences and opinions in social networks. I am certain a CEO could do that - like you George - without getting into trouble. If he doesn't then I don't see it as a drawback. I do not need Steve Jobs to be social to be an Apple fan. If he has other ways to hear that there are issues with Apple product quality and support, who cares.

Wait a minute...You're a CEO!

Yes, I know, you're different. But your reasons why CEOs aren't social seem weak. First, the "conventional wisdom" of post frequency. I don't think the same rules apply to CEOs. A smart and visionary CEO could blog once a month and gather quite a following. And if a CEO isn't smart enough to blog about topics that won't get him or her into trouble, maybe they're not smart enough to be CEO. (I am more interested in what you have to say about other things than what you may have to say about Forrester Research, for example; and you don't post all that often!). And as for typewriters and white-out—I'm reminded at President George H.W. Bush's moment of amazement seeing a grocery store scanner in action. Do the company's customers use computers and smartphones? Then the CEO had better know what that is like.

You're right...

Check out my next post when I will take up the question of whether the CEO should be social -- because many can and should be.

Hmm...

To start with, I reject age as a siginificant reason; it is merely an excuse. My 85 year uncle blogs. I am 60 and a web developer; I blog and Facebook (maybe not often enough, but I do).

I will admit that I do not Tweet. But then I don't see why most CEOs should need to Tweet either. The so-called social model is really not applicable to many/most CEO's IMHO.

I would agree that the regulatory risks for many top CEOs in tweeting could be quite high. However a blog a month, at the least, could easily be run through the legal department. And who says a CEO can't have the equivalent of a speech writer. In that case, he/she would provide an outline of what to say and someone who is gifted with words (or Blarney) could flesh it out.

On the other hand, we have CEOs like you, who are run a more socially-oriented company. These people should be more like you, so long as they can provide real content (as you do) rather than "rah rah" stuff.

Social usage is driven by relevance and need, not age

I really don't believe that age is as much of a factor in social media participation as emotional/psychological drivers (and this has always been my issue with the Technographics model). If Facebook, a particular Forum, or Flickr fills a driving need, people will participate, regardless of their age. I've studied a lot of forums and I would be hard pressed to point to one that is more active, long-term, or connected than the Alzheimer's caregiver forum on Alz.org. Participants are caregiers, most over the age of 50 and many far north of that (spouses of the patient). They participate because the forum meets a serious need. It sustains the members because it is highly relevant to their problems and shared experience. Age just isn't that much of a barrier (as evidenced by the fastest growing segment on Facebook today, women over 45)

I think the idea that the model doesn't fit CEOs is much closer to the mark. Most CEO's have a handful of top priorities on their mind every day and this short list of priorities drives every activity. Being visible/active in social channels? Well, if it really helps push one of those top priorities forward, a good CEO would be on it. If not, or if it can play a role but someone else can do it (like the CMO) the CEO is unlikely to devote a lot of time there.

I do think social can help the CEO so I'm looking forward to part 3!

Social media is viral George...with no flu shot in sight!

George, no one more than you knows that "things change". In fact, the name George was one of the most popular boys names in America for each and every decade since 1880 until about 1940 when it fell off the list.

Age should not be a factor at all. Look at the contagion of Facebook (400 Million users on 4/1/10 and 500 Million by 7/1/10), Twitter and Linkedin. These typewriter and whiteout CEO's don't seem to understand that the communication occuring today over the social network is what will soon drive their quarterly earnings reports (if not already). These social media users are the consumers who are considering, recommending and buying (these same dinosaur CEO) products. While I agree that the current models of FB and Twitter may sem a bit too "personal" there soon will be a "business to business" social media that truly can have some sustainable idea-sharing on a global basis. Here's an example: Just take a look at TripAdvisors new "Trip Friends" just released. They have successfully integrated their application into Facebook with their travel site recommendations. Gaining recomendations from your other FB Friends as you are considering visiting a new city. While you may have never been to this city before, isn't it enlightening that you can find out which of your closest "friends" have been to this city before and what they have to say about what things to do and where to stay....just an example of tapping into a 500 million (and growing) user database!

We are also entering a time in society where "transparency" is not only becoming more prevalent, but a necessity, not only in politics, but in in business as well. So I'm interested in hearing more from George Colony on this topic as well, not the publicly traded CEO, but the from the visionary genius and proud dad next to me at the little league game. ;-)