Brunswick Review Issue 2

Should CEOs Twitter

Twitter has taken the communications world by storm in 2009, influencing United States politics, mobilizing opposition to the Iranian government and fueling celebrity gossip.

Written by: Michelangelo Bendandi, Brunswick, New York

CEOs tempted to join the craze may be taking a risk too far.

On a day-to-day basis Twitter is a predominantly one-to-many channel rather than a discussion group per se: individuals only see comments from people they follow while their own “tweets” (maximum 140 characters) only go to people who have voluntarily decided to follow them. This means that, unless the tweet is addressed directly to an individual, users do not generally expect a response.

This format explains why politicians and celebrities have embraced Twitter as a means of bypassing traditional media and going straight to their audiences. “The best part is being able to directly talk to Missourians about my day without reporters editing,” observed Claire McCaskill, a Democratic senator from Missouri.

CORPORATE TWEETS

Part of Twitter’s attraction for companies is its utility as a free focus group. As the leading mobile micro-blogging platform it reveals real-time public reaction and sentiment. Customer service departments in the US, for example, keep a close eye on Twitter to head off product or service issues before they escalate online. 

Ford used Twitter in December 2008 to counter allegations that it was shutting down fan websites with cease and desist orders. A day later, General Motors used it to squelch rumors that it was shutting down its Volt electric auto factory. And Home Depot and Whole Foods turned to Twitter during last year’s US Gulf Coast hurricanes to tell people where they could get emergency generators and fresh water.

Several CEOs are on record as Twitter fans. “Twitter is another way for us to get news out about Digg,” says Digg Chief Executive Kevin Rose. “Whether it is company announcements or sharing [our] casual information, Twitter is a great way to quickly reach people.”

Jason Calacanis, Chief Executive, Mahalo.com says he can use Twitter to release new features and ideas to Mahalo’s “superfans” ahead of time and get their input. “Many of the bloggers and press watch my Twitter stream as well, so if I want to leak something to the press, I can do it by just saying ‘what do you think about this...?’ and if it’s notable, it will be on ten blogs in a day. So for me it’s part focus group, part press release system, and a lot of fun to interact with users and fans.”

For Jonathan Schwartz, Chief Executive of Sun Microsystems, it is all about leadership: “As CEO, I need to engage the market, inside and outside Sun, with whatever technology affords me the greatest possible reach. Through blogs, online news, social networking sites, or Twitter, the internet has fundamentally changed how we communicate with one another. Today, we have thousands of employees participating, engaging customers and developers across the world, 24 hours a day. And whether it’s via a half-hour streaming video or a 140-character tweet, we need to reach everyone in the forum and format they choose – not what we choose.”

What can go wrong? Besides challenges inherent in all online media, the main criticism of Twitter is the blandness of the content, exemplified by CEOs who tweet about their personal lives. Richard Branson of Virgin can get away with “Another day in the office” when referring (and linking to) his latest ad campaign – but hourly descriptions of what business leaders are physically doing have not attracted universal praise. Mainstream press commentators will expose frailty. “Most executives are making a complete hash of using it [Twitter]”, wrote Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times. Either they provide mundane personal detail, or they fill it with mundane professional detail – which she thought is possibly worse. “The first scores higher on embarrassment; the second on tedium.” Sathnam Sanghera told Times of London readers that “despite his reputation for never uttering a dull word” the actor and celebrity Stephen Fry “is capable of jaw-slackening blandness” on his Twitter feed. 

REPUTATION ISSUES

CEOs who want to write about their company may want a lawyer to cast an eye over any comments. Media “followers” will inevitably respond with questions. The same applies to analysts.

Saying nothing, though, or saying it blandly is also risky. As with blogs, an empty or inconsistent Twitter feed looks bad. One danger is that a CEO sets off enthusiastically only to find that the response is poor and uninterested.

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS BEFORE MAKING ANY DECISION ABOUT TWITTER:

  • Will a Twitter feed enhance your larger communications strategy?
  • What audience exactly are you trying to reach? Is it internal, external or both – and will Twitter help you reach them?
  • Is the CEO actually the best voice for Twitter – and does he/she personally want to do it, have the time and agree to stick with it?
  • Do you have content that is of interest to your target audience – and is Twitter the right channel to deliver it?
  • Is it more strategic to use Twitter in a day-to-day way, or for more limited periods of time? (For example, while at Davos.)
  • Will you engage in live conversations or will it be used simply to broadcast alerts and links? If you intend to respond to queries about replies, how much time will it consume?
  • If tweeting about a listed company, will your legal department need to vet content? Is there content you can safely post without going through a slow legal vetting process?
  • And, importantly, do you have a wider communications strategy in place to deal with other people tweeting about you and your company? 

Michelangelo Bendandi specializes in online communications at Brunswick, London. His previous experience includes interface design and online marketing in the medical, recruitment and financial sectors, and managing broadcast sponsorship for UEFA Euro 2004.