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Post like a maestro: Social media comms for leaders

Smart CEOs can harness authenticity and humanity on socials — but one slip can spell disaster. Here’s a strategic plan.
Person seated, using a smartphone to browse social media, with a focus on their hands and the device over a handbag, inside a room with striped carpeting.
Robert Alexander / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • CEOs who use social media as an important comms tool walk a fine line between risk and reward.
  • Stakeholders are demanding more accessibility from leaders — direct CEO posts can be a more immediate way to build connections.
  • A list of tactical considerations can guide leaders through the candid social media-sphere.

Is your CEO itching to post on LinkedIn or X? Does the thought fill you with glee or dread? 

Not long ago, the regular use of social platforms by corporate leaders was rare — or even unthinkable. Now, it has become the norm, with companies seeing it as a fresh, immediate and relatable way to engage audiences. Some even believe it’s become a core strategy for improving overall performance.

CEOs dabbling in social media is a strategy riddled with risks, though. Several have already paid the price, with bungled communications damaging reputations and share prices, and even costing a few their jobs. Elon Musk’s tweets have landed him in hot water, including with regulators; CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman resigned in the wake of offensive tweets; and T-Mobile CEO John Legere had to delete controversial tweets during merger talks.

Many communication professionals are still nervous about the whole idea. But lessons are being learned all the time, and there are steps leaders can now take to tap the power of social media safely.

How posting on socials became the norm

Tech magnates led the way on socials, with leaders such as Tesla’s Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos often bypassing traditional media to share updates and ideas. Now other leaders are following suit. For the first time last year, more than half of CEOs in France, Germany and the UK engaged in social channels, according to FTI Consulting research. Some, like Niklas Oestberg of Delivery Hero, are relentless — he posts 59 times a month. But even leaders in companies such as Volkswagen, Unilever and Siemens are using socials often.

Stakeholders are demanding more accessibility from leaders, but companies have struggled to engage with them due to audience fatigue and lack of inspiring content. In response, many believe direct CEO posts can be a fresher, more immediate way to build connections with a jaded public.

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Kraig Kleeman, CEO of Z-Branding and author of A Winning Brand, says: “The days when CEOs were just faces on the annual report are gone. They’re ditching the old PR playbook and getting chatty on social media, breaking down walls, stripping away the corporate veneer, and bringing a dose of humanity.”

Brenda Christensen, CEO at Stellar Public Relations, says: “In an age of low trust, many people value the transparency and directness of social media, especially younger generations. They see it as more honest communication.” 

Separate research from FTI and London School of Economics (LSE) suggests the approach has generally been effective. When leaders use direct communication, they are viewed more positively, public trust in the company grows and employee relations improve. 

Social media also allows for rapid impact, with audiences understanding your immediate take on events. Messages appear to be straight from the top (even if your comms department writes them). In addition, interaction on social platforms can help you build personal brand and network, gather direct feedback from diverse sources, and avoid groupthink.

It can also enable leaders to control their narrative, steering clear of media spin. Jonathon Narvey, CEO at Mind Meld PR, says it’s an understandable response to unbalanced, narrative-driven journalism. Narvey points to Musk, who has been the subject of attempted “character assassinations” by various outlets in traditional media. “On social media, he can say what he thinks unfiltered, so why go through such a clown show?”

The social media minefield

Despite the upsides, there are also pitfalls. Rafe Gomez, co-owner of VC Inc. Marketing, warns that CEOs communicating on social media without guidance from PR professionals is a “horrible idea.” Like everyone else, they risk making careless and rash reflex responses.

“They need to be filtered, edited, and saved from themselves by experienced practitioners,” says Gomez. “Professionals can calm and focus executives to avert messaging disasters, brand damage, and buyer alienation.”

The days when CEOs were just faces on the annual report are gone. They’re ditching the old PR playbook and getting chatty on social media, breaking down walls, stripping away the corporate veneer, and bringing a dose of humanity.

Kraig Kleeman, CEO of Z-Branding

Even relatively innocent communications can get lost in translation. Kleeman says: “Have you ever texted something in jest, only to have it blow up in your face? Imagine that on a corporate scale. Without PR guardrails, a tweet can go viral, turning a minor hiccup into a full-blown crisis.”

Christensen, who has worked with outspoken personalities such as Donald Trump and antivirus pioneer John McAfee, says the public may tolerate more robust comments from certain outspoken personalities. But even those known for bombast should beware oversharing, or off-the-cuff remarks that could be damaging, she says. It can be a fine line between keeping it real and airing dirty laundry in public.

Tips for posting CEOs

Once leaders have committed to the social media-sphere, fully aware of the risks as well as the potential rewards, these essential tactical considerations are well worth bearing in mind:

1. Start with a strategic plan. “Jumping on social media without knowing what you want to say, to whom, and why they should care, is like sailing without a compass,” says Kleeman. FTI’s analysis shows leaders who use social channels successfully have comprehensive strategies, ample resources and clear governance — for example, around sign-off processes, and monitoring for comments, questions or issues.

2. Don’t broadcast, engage. Join discussions, answer questions and be part of the community.

3. Aim for balance. Be assertive but responsive and professional, even when tweeting in your pajamas. For example, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, uses X to share strategic insights, celebrate milestones, and engage respectfully with employees and customers. His balanced approach shows how CEOs can navigate social media effectively without risking reputation, says Kleeman.

4. Offer accountability. Consider using social media to respond promptly to crises or criticism. This can reassure customers and demonstrate accountability. Apple CEO Tim Cook has used social posts to swiftly address concerns about product recalls or technical glitches, committing to resolve issues efficiently. Also, Spotify boss Daniel Ek recently tweeted a well-received video addressing concerns about how the platform pays artists.

5. Take a beat. Not everyone will love what you say, so be ready to deal with criticism gracefully and turn negatives into meaningful conversations. But sometimes saying nothing is best. For example, burger chain Five Guys recently declined to respond to criticism of its pricing. If you have solid support on social media, letting someone else defend you has more impact. Besides some issues will blow over quickly — commenting yourself can merely prolong the story.

6. Think about context. Judge how key audiences may react to avoiding traditional channels. Ryan McCormick, co-founder at Goldman McCormick PR, believes posting important corporate news on socials first is unprofessional. “Investors deserve a heads-up on information before everyone else,” he says. “Also, CEOs need a healthy relationship with the media. Bypassing reporters with crucial information won’t make friends in the press. One negative story can damage reputation substantially.”

7. Beware bragging and boundaries. Be charismatic — that’s much more likely to get you retweeted, according to LSE. But avoid bragging or worse, humble bragging. And respect boundaries: don’t “friend” your employees. Authenticity is paramount. Without it, you risk a perception of fake honesty, which could backfire.

8. Don’t post solo. Get at least four other leaders in your company posting as well — this can reinforce communications and build momentum.

9. Develop self-awareness. Michael Toebe, consultant at Reputation Intelligence, says corporate leaders may not understand their own impulses or risk of expressing something clumsily or recklessly. “If they can understand audience expectations, and be poised, sensitive, compassionate and clear, that’s helpful,” he says. “But not all corporate leaders are wired this way.” They can easily become emotionally triggered, arrogant or defensive. Mitigate these risks by honestly appraising your strengths and weaknesses, and communicating alongside advisors you can defer to if you are prone to slips, or feel dangerous impulses building. 

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10. Don’t bypass your experts. Christensen suggests that, because social media often creates a “siren’s lure” for strong CEO personalities to communicate directly, they should always run messages past a comms professional first to ensure they are considered and align with the company’s values. Plan and role-play with your advisors, be coachable, observe, learn and conduct communication post-mortems. 

What to post and where

The most impactful CEOs post on a broad range of topics. For example, Paul Hudson, CEO of healthcare company Sanofi, posts about everything from sustainability to crisis situations and employee updates. FTI says the three most engaging topics are colleagues and communities; customers; and diversity and inclusion. In contrast, audiences are less excited by posts about supply chains; products and services; and climate change. FTI recommends keeping a broad spread of topics, including less popular ones, but making all posts more people-centric by showing how your strategy is relevant to the audience.

As for platforms, LinkedIn’s popularity is rising among CEOs, but X’s is falling due to a perceived higher chance of negative responses, says FTI. Only a few CEOs use Facebook and Instagram — though the latter has the highest engagement rate for those who do. Rather than looking only at engagement levels, tailor the message to the audience and platform, it suggests.

Using social media comes with a bucketload of challenges. But with a careful strategy, leaders can use it to radically improve their communications, and build trust — one post at a time.

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