Should your boss be tweeting more...or not at all?

By Daniel Thomas
Business reporter

Image source, Getty Images
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Ryanair's Michael O'Leary is one of many chief executives who've made Twitter gaffes

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, perhaps misunderstanding the nature of a live Twitter Q&A, once infamously replied to a female questioner with: "Nice pic. Phwoaaarr! MOL".

Not that the outspoken chief executive was all that abashed by his faux pas.

And two years earlier, Kenneth Cole, boss of the eponymous clothing and accessories brand, tweeted this howler during the Egyptian revolution: "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now online..."

The twitterstorm that followed forced him to make a swift apology in which he admitted that his tweet had been "insensitive" and "absolutely inappropriate".

Image source, Getty Images
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You said what? Retailer Kenneth Cole (left) dropped a Twitter clanger in 2011

So perhaps it is no wonder only 10% of the chief executives running the world's 50 largest companies regularly tweet, according to a survey by marketing consultancy Weber Shandwick.

The risk of contracting foot-in-mouth disease seems just too high for many.


But Robert Glaesener, boss of Twitter analytics firm Talkwalker, believes the fact that most of them are aged 50-to-60 has more to do with it - they're simply too old to understand social media fully, he says.

Even tweeting extrovert Sir Richard Branson, who has more than six million followers and epitomises the consumer-friendly, approachable boss, is prone to the occasional gaffe.

His tweet on the day of the fatal Virgin Galactic crash last year began: "Space is hard - but worth it."

This was considered insensitive by some commentators and led others to question the legitimacy of his space tourism mission.

Image source, Twitter
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Even outgoing entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has made the odd slip-up on Twitter

"There is a real danger that something that is well meant can end up creating cynicism on social media," warns Mr Glaesener. "While most of the responses to that tweet were positive and supportive, there were also negative responses with people questioning his motives."

But leaving Twitter campaigns to your corporate PR team sometimes isn't any better.

When British Gas decided to hold a Twitter Q&A with customers on the same day it announced price rises of 9.2%, it led to a barrage of abuse hurled at the then customer services director, Bert Pijls.

Top Twitter tips for bosses

Image source, Getty Images
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How would mouthy football manager Brian Clough (centre) have fared in the Twitter age?
  • Get training before using social media
  • Think hard before you tweet: what's said online stays said
  • Don't start tweeting then give up, but don't tweet for the sake of tweeting
  • Focus on a handful of issues, don't try to appeal to everyone
  • Be true to yourself and to your brand: authenticity rules
  • Train your employees how to use Twitter, too: they are brand ambassadors
  • Listen to your customers, but don't feel you have to respond to every tweet
  • Check your spelling

Sources: Talkwalker, Hootsuite, Duke University, Weber Shandwick, Softchoice

CEO activism

But are Twitter-shy bosses missing a trick?

Done well, a strong Twitter presence can enhance your brand, even if you're not tweeting about your own company, researchers believe.

Image source, Reuters
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Apple boss Tim Cook tweets about a wide range of issues, not just technology

For example, when the state of Indiana passed a law that threatened to allow discrimination against gay people on religious grounds, one of the most influential voices to oppose it was Apple boss, Tim Cook.

Using Twitter and the news media, he and other high profile figures put pressure on the state's governor who, within days, revised the legislation and issued reassurances.

Mr Cook's "CEO activism" benefited his company, too, say researchers from Harvard Business School and Duke University who have been tracking his Twitter use.

"He effectively framed the debate using social media at a time when opinions were being formed and the impact went beyond the political," says Aaron Chatterji, a professor at Duke.

Image source, Twitter
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Apple boss Tim Cook's tweets have benefited his company's brand, researchers believe

"We have found his statements about the law had a positive impact on consumer sentiment for Apple."

It also helps if you have more than 1.3 million Twitter followers.

Social business sense

While only 10% of chief executives regularly used Twitter last year, 28% were members of a social network - up from 16% in 2010 - and many more used platforms like YouTube (38%) and their own company websites (68%). LinkedIn was the most popular platform for CEOs, the research suggests.

"People are interested in the leadership of organisations, so they want to know who's running them, what their beliefs are and what they are all about," says Weber Shandwick's Adam Clyne.

"It is also a way for CEOs to have a direct interaction with the public when once upon a time they were only really able to communicate through the media."

Social media fans say companies can come across as more human on these platforms, as Mr Cook's tweets on politics, green energy, and even American football, demonstrate.

Image source, Reuters
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Can chief executives afford not to be on Twitter and other social media these days?

Another plus, says Ryan Holmes, chief executive of Hootsuite, a social media tech company, is that leaders can get "unfiltered" feedback from their customers.

"Twitter, Facebook and other networks now amount to a huge - and largely free - focus group, at least for CEOs and managers savvy enough to use them," he wrote in a LinkedIn blog last month.

"All too often we fall into the emperor-has-no-clothes trap, surrounding ourselves with yes-people who say only what we want to hear."

This new openness can also help keep companies honest, says Mr Clyne.

"People now expect transparency from organisations and social media allows the public to hold them to account," he says.

"It has enabled a real two-way dialogue and organisations have to behave much better because of it."

While companies are certainly spending more on social media, there is still no definitive way of proving it makes sense financially.

But perhaps the most persuasive business case for being on Twitter - and other social media platforms - is that that's where the customers are these days.