“Do you use Twitter?” It was a simple question I’d asked my seatmate, the chairman of a large multinational retail firm, at a dinner for board directors a couple of years ago.
With barely concealed incredulity he replied that he wouldn’t dream of it. Twitter was something for his grandchildren and there was nothing of interest to him there.
I couldn’t resist: a couple quick taps on my phone brought up a Twitter search of his company with a huge number of tweets. He was startled. He'd had no idea there was so much going on there. A couple more taps and up came the results of a search on his name. That made him turn a pale shade of green. Somehow he'd figured that since he wasn't using social media, that people using social media weren't interested in him.
There are myriad reasons why board directors and senior executives in all sectors need to understand and embrace social media, even if they use it sparingly. The different applications, be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram are now centres of news, opinion, activism, customer engagement and much more.
Speaking as a board director and an avid user of social media, social media has become an essential extension of my work. I like Twitter for news and Facebook for touching base with friends. LinkedIn helps me keep up with companies and professional associates, and Instagram is a valuable visual way to share experiences. I’m intrigued by Pintrest, as it has made real waves for brands. The list goes on.
Get on board
Board directors and executives need to have a clear understanding of how social media affects our organisations. In some sectors it has revolutionised the way companies interact with customers, employees, partners and the community at large.
Judging from the calls I’ve been getting from headhunters, boards are coming to recognise the need for social media savvy board members. They want to appoint people who have demonstrated dexterity with social media, and have genuine credibility and a following as part of their skill set.
I have colleagues who get the chills when they consider the possible pitfalls of social media, but rather than using that as a reason to turn our backs on the medium, it should be an incentive to learn how to use it properly.
When board members and senior executives are active and engaged, it sends a message about their commitment to communication. A chief executive officer becomes more approachable, relatable and accessible, and board members become more than faceless people sitting around a table behind closed doors.
Here are four do’s and four don’ts that I personally follow:
- Be on “send” and “receive”. For me social media is about engagement and learning. It is a means of learning what other people are thinking and talking about, and for sharing things that I find interesting and think would be interesting to others. If you are always on “send” — only transmitting things you want to tell people — you will miss out on some of the real value of social media. By being on “receive” — listening, and engaging with others — you will get a lot more out of it.
- Be authentic. I’m always surprised when people ask if my tweets are really from me. If time is limited, it is better to share one thought you’ve written yourself once a day or once a week than to have someone else construct tweets for you more frequently. People can tell if the tweets are outsourced, and they respond better authenticity.
- Read it over before you hit send. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sent tweets with things spelled wrong (even recently), or thought I was sending a private message, but instead shared it with the world. Also, as with emails, I try to avoid sending a tweet or making a comment when I’m annoyed. Remember, once it is out there, it is there forever, especially now that the Library of Congress archives all tweets.
- Learn the rules of the road. It is important to understand the language and customs of each platform. For example, on Twitter, don’t use other people’s tweets without properly crediting them. On LinkedIn, it’s fine to comment and offer critiques, but what you write reflects on your professional reputation as well as that of the company you represent. If you disagree, try to do it respectfully.
- Think it is a private venue. Social media is public. Don’t write anything you would not be happy to have published in a newspaper. (A tweet of mine was quoted recently.) Even if you have a private account, there is a risk that anything you post will be passed on or shared, be it opinions, photos, or conversations.
- Disclose confidential information. You’d be surprised what enterprising journalists, investors or competitors can deduce from your photos or status updates. I don’t tweet or share on Facebook if I’m travelling on sensitive company business. If I share pictures that give a view into what I’m doing, I make sure that they do not show confidential documents. Also, proceed with caution with company communications. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced last year that companies could use social media outlets to announce key information, but there is still a need for clarity.
- Share things you haven’t actually read or know for sure. Take care not to retweet rumours or something that has not been properly reported, and read articles fully before you repost. Don’t forget investors, partners, and employees are watching.
- Pre-schedule tweets and shares. It is tempting to schedule tweets and comments for a time when you think the most people will read them, but there is a real danger to that. I’d rather tweet in real time, than risk being in a meeting or on a plane when a disaster strikes and my tone-deaf tweet goes out about something that is completely irrelevant or unimportant. I almost always share things in real time, tweeting when I’m up and reading the news, which in my case is often 05:00.
To be truly responsible board members and executives, it is important that we understand how people communicate today. Not every person on the board must be actively engaged in social media, but all board members should understand it.
And, what happened to the chairman I mentioned earlier? His attitude towards social media shifted over time. He has a Twitter account that he uses to keep an eye on company mentions, and to follow news accounts for industry and sector updates. He is registered on LinkedIn, and he has a Facebook account now, which, as it turns out, is a nice way to keep in touch with his grandchildren.
There is so much more to talk about around this topic – let’s discuss it some more on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Lucy Marcus is an award winning writer, board chair and non-executive director of several organisations. She has been recognised by Time Magazine as one of the 140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2013 , was ranked 19th in the Reuters & Klout 50 Most Influential Execs on the Web, and listed 5th in the Top 10 Business Leaders on Twitter by The Independent. Don’t miss another Above Board column by subscribing here. You can also follow Lucy on Twitter @lucymarcus.