Chief executives and Twitter: Are they losing out?

Beware the blue bird – what happens on social media stays on social media
Only a handful of business leaders tweet, which may be a good thing.
"I owe you one @BenKaufman! Here’s my #IceBucketChallenge. You’re up Sarah and Steve Immelt and Ken Chenault!”
So tweeted General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt on 21 August. It’s difficult to imagine the company’s august co-founder and former president Charles Coffin, described on the firm’s website as “a man born to command”, issuing such a statement to the public. And the data suggest that Immelt is relatively unique among business leaders in jumping on the social media bandwagon.
Weber Shandwick found that a mere 2 per cent of chief executives in the 2012 Fortune Global 500 list had active Twitter accounts, down from 8 per cent in 2010. From a random sample of 25 FTSE 100 chief execs, just one had an active account yesterday – National Grid’s Steve Holliday – suggesting a proportion of 4 per cent, compared to almost 25 per cent for the UK population as a whole. Even Willie Walsh, outspoken boss of International Airlines, shuns the platform, as do the media-savvy chiefs of WPP (Sir Martin Sorrell) and ITV (Adam Crozier). What’s behind this? Are corporate big-hitters immune to #FOMO (fear of missing out)? Are hashtags not worth the hassle?

OVEREXPOSED

An obvious answer is that executives have more than enough on their plates without having to figure out what on earth the “favourite” button is for. Speaking to the BBC, Vincent Lo of property and construction business Shui On Group said: “Somebody suggested I should have a blog myself. I said ‘how am I going to find time to do it?’”
And even without the constraints of a busy schedule, the risk of a public gaffe or time-stamped error has likely caused many executives to shy away. As shadow chancellor Ed Balls found out after accidentally tweeting his own name, high-profile mistakes are not quickly forgotten online – 28 April is now known as “Ed Balls Day” among the initiated, and the Labour MP is annually bombarded with requests for another eponymous tweet.
Martin Gilbert of Aberdeen Asset Management (whose chief investment officer Anne Richards has tweeted 4,785 times since May 2012) has voiced concerns over the immediacy of social media, saying it requires caution, which is something British Gas could attest to. After inviting followers to use “#AskBG” to quiz the firm over a price hike last year, the phrase became a top “trending” hashtag, with over 16,000 highly vitriolic tweets sent in a matter of hours. It’s easy to see why chief executives might not want to expose themselves to the baying mob.

A FRIENDLY FACE

But used carefully, Twitter has been a public relations boon for some executives. A survey by Brandfog found that 82 per cent of customers were more likely to trust a company whose executives engaged through social media. And Richard Branson, (whose role at Virgin is admittedly different to most bosses), was able to get over 20,000 signatures for a petition protesting the decision to award the West Coast Mainline franchise to FirstGroup, partly through Twitter.
Newton Investment Management’s Helena Morrissey, 02 Telefonica’s Ronan Dunne and Ann Summers’s Jacqueline Gold have all amassed considerable followings, and (unlike Ed Balls) have managed to avoid tweeting their own names – so far.

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