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Why the CEO needs to get social

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Why the CEO needs to get social

There was a time a few years ago, when talk was all about the ‘democratisation’ of information –wider access that new technology was sure to deliver. Well, that time is here. Social media has democratised information.

What does this mean? It means that in the past some people (usually figures of authority) had information and others didn’t. Those who had information – or access to information – had more power than those who didn’t.

In the corporate world, this meant that the CEO (and the executive team) used to have access to a bigger volume of credible information, more quickly that anyone else. They also had absolute control over what was disseminated and when it was done.

But social media has made the information pyramid much flatter – we can easily access information about companies, competitors or the broader industry from a variety of sources. We hear everything from rumours to analysis on social media. Twitter-savvy staff can communicate with journalists or even the CEO’s of rival companies to solicit opinion. All of this means that employees are far more independent thinkers and are less likely to be accepting of what the executive team says. It also means that the CEO has to be more responsive, act more quickly and be more authentic in communicating a message – or risk completely losing influence over key stakeholders including employees.

The biggest issue is, of course, that there is now no place to hide. The CEO has to build trust and be brave enough to be transparent because he is up against a medium that has a natural credibility that CEO’s don’t always enjoy.

So, most employees understand that the CEO has an agenda. He is incentivised to persuade you of his beliefs and goals whilst social media can be agenda-less or can aggregate views, beliefs and agendas of lots of people - creating a more balanced view.

Likewise, employees often feel that they can’t identify with the CEO. The conversation in their heads goes: “He is (usually) not like me – in education, generation, social position, etc. I can’t identify with him. I can identify with and trust sources/people who are like me. They get me. And these are the people who I speak to on social media.”

And whilst the CEO has a sense of authority that has worked in the past – these days it’s the opposite. Employees feel that executive management ‘speaks down’ to them whereas mediums like Facebook are on the same level, speak a common language and give employees a chance to express their views.

Therefore, while the CEO may with every good intention, make a formal announcement to staff – the chances of him being believed as a credible source and the chances of him being able to change behaviour is much slimmer than in the past.

This means that the CEO, if he wants to be effective, has to broaden his communication style – embracing new ideas that boost credibility and authenticity. This might mean using mediums such as ‘Twitter’ which is timely and appears more ‘genuine’ – less structured. It also gives the CEO the opportunity to respond to the comments of employees, etc and to invite their participation.

But these principles are not limited to social media. More informal, personal conversations with employees – whether in the corridors or in chatrooms – inspires confidence and trust. The rule of thumb is less mediated, structured, published communication and more spontaneous, short, sharp interactions.

In summary, today’s CEO should strive to engage employees in conversation rather than speak at them. And the only way to build trust and engage employees – is to opt for more unmediated communication than in the past. The alternative is to battle against all the other sources of communication out there for the employee ‘vote.’

Terri Brown

Terri Brown

Terri Brown is the Founding Director of Actuate specialists in internal marketing / communications and employee engagement.

Website: www.actuate.co.za

More in this category: « Marketing Departments 2012 – Centres for business ideas How to integrate social media into your communications strategy »

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