4 steps to turning your CEO into a social media powerhouse

Should your executives be on Twitter or LinkedIn? To answer that, start with a strategic question: What are your communication goals?

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Should your executives be on Twitter, perhaps on Instagram?

Should your CEO post photos of himself barbecuing a Thanksgiving turkey or clad in a turban and a skirt for an Indian festival?

In her Ragan Training presentation, “Bridging the digital gap between executives and the public,” Jacqueline Simard Ireton, digital strategy manager at Eli Lilly and Co., offers ways to strategize executives’ social media presences.

For Lilly CEO Dave Ricks, the answer to question of turkeys and turbans was yes, even in a highly regulated pharmaceutical research and manufacturing company. Much can be gained through executives’ social media engagement, Ireton says, as long as you define your strategy, message and messenger.

“Your message should always drive who is going to be stating it,” she says. “So, first you find your message before you define your messenger.”

Some 80 percent of top executives have at least one social media account, Ireton says. No wonder: 71 percent of American respondents agree that CEOs who are active on social media are more trustworthy.

Add to that the news from the Edelman Trust Barometer that the most regulated industries are some of the least trusted, and there is an opportunity for executives to help boost the organization’s image.

Lilly sought to take action after determining that only a small percentage of its social media messages were being noticed. “They were kind of falling flat, because no one saw them,” Ireton says.

Here are tips for executives’ use of social media:

1. Know your communication goals.

If you don’t have a strong idea of what you’re trying to do, Ireton advises that you stay away from social media. For Lilly, there were three primary goals:

  • The team sought to let people know that not only is Lilly a manufacturer of medicine, but it also has “brilliant scientists in the lab creating medicines.”
  • The company wanted to build trust with investors and showcase potential growth.
  • Communicators wanted to “shake the system.” A few topics are very important to the organization, and communicators wanted to make sure they were reaching policymakers and other people of influence.

2. Set executive engagement goals.

Once you have your overall communication goals, you can determine the executive engagement goals. What are you trying to do through the individual messages that match those strategic goals?

Lilly was seeking to humanize not only Ricks but the company itself. Outsiders really didn’t know the brilliant boffins who make up the company’s cadre of researchers.

“How can we use those channels to really educate individuals about all of these bright people that you work with?” Ireton says.

3. Partner with the market research team.

If you have a market research team or similar role within your company, partner with them to scour the web and ensure that your target audience is open to the message you want to offer. How does it differ from other messages out there?

“Confirm if the space is too crowded or with similar viewpoints,” Ireton says. “If you don’t really have a specific point of view, are you just adding to the noise?”

Knowing these goals, you can identify the executive who would make the best messenger. (It’s not always the CEO.) Your messenger must “ladder up” to what you’re trying to accomplish as a company. Your chief technology officer, for example, would make sense to talk about digital health.

4. Determine the platform.

The most popular executive engagement social media platforms are LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram, with additional leaders popping up in vlogs on YouTube.

If your executive’s goal is to engage peers, an industry audience and others as a visionary leader, LinkedIn is best. Plus there’s this bonus, Ireton says: “Linked in is just a higher quality of human versus Twitter”—meaning there are fewer trolls.

Lilly has found great success in testing diverse formats on LinkedIn:

  • Quick shares. These amount to an endorsement of an idea or article.
  • Short-form musings. This might be 100 words or so, with a link to an article that your company was featured in.
  • Long-form posts allow you to “really get into the weeds,” Ireton says. Ricks’ most successful long-form post was on the lessons he’s learned from backpacking. Though specifically addressing his role as head honcho in a pharmaceutical company, he shared funny experiences relevant to leadership.

Twitter, by contrast, offers a way to reach today’s short-attention audiences. “Is the goal to share quickly and succinctly on trending topics or newsworthy topics?” Ireton says. Then Twitter might be a good bet.

If recruitment is one of your initiatives, Instagram is a great place to be. The platform also offers a way to show a friendlier side of sometimes distant top bosses. “If your goal is to humanize someone, what better way to do it than with video and photo?” Ireton says.

She loves the way Ricks, who was initially reluctant to tackle social media, has embraced Instagram. His Instagram following has grown three times faster than the company’s Instagram audience.

“He’s nailing it,” she says. “He’s crushing it. He’s so good.”

Time to talk turkey with your top dogs.

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