A Crash Course in Social Media for Executives, From Digital PR Experts

A Crash Course in Social Media for Executives, From Digital PR Experts

By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire
7-minute read

In short:

  • A growing contingent of execs are using social media to boost business metrics, from sales numbers to brand awareness. 

  • The ground rules for execs’ social media behavior and the best practices for growing their presence differ from the average user's.

  • Execs with exceptional social media presences provide an example for those looking to get in on the game, and experts predict participation will continue to rise.


It’s not just millennials and brand marketers who consider social media a necessary component of business strategy. A growing majority of C-suite execs use it too, and their ranks are only going to increase.

To fully reap the business benefits of social media as an exec, it’s helpful to adhere to some best practices. Unlike an everyday individual’s social profile, your online presence is closely tied to your company, clients and customers. And with that come ground rules and tactics which, if obeyed and employed, can grow your business.

The social media majority

Sixty-six percent of C-suite execs use social media for business purposes, according to a recent study from Grisdale Advisors. Seventy percent of these post on a daily or weekly basis. The top three platforms they use are Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and they use Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest to a lesser degree.

Overall, most of the execs on social media have public-facing roles like CMO, CCO and CEO, the study found. All in all, only 13% of execs don’t use any social media for either professional or personal purposes.

Making headlines

CEOs who post opinions and updates on social media have the opportunity to lead the news agenda, CEO Today Magazine points out. Posting and commenting also allows them to meet customers, collect unfiltered feedback, appear more “human” to staff and customers and build trust.

Additionally, research from Hootsuite and LinkedIn found that when execs use social media, their employees are 40% more likely to use it for business purposes too. And when a sales team uses social, they’re 50% more likely to hit quota. So if you're trying to build a company with strong social engagement and sales results, then you must lead by example.

5 tricks for execs to build a following on social media 

Many top PR firms and digital marketing agencies specialize in training for execs who are looking to build a powerful social media presence. Here are some of their recommendations for growing your influence on social (and thus very likely growing your business): 


1. Be active. 
Offer engaging, valuable or relevant industry information to your followers on a regular basis. An active social media presence is the only way to grow an audience and spread your message. Top brands publish at least once per day, and as an exec, you should too.

Global PR firm Weber Shandwick conducts research and coaches executives on social media. Chief Reputation Strategist Leslie Gaines-Ross said her team defines CEOs as “active” on social media if they fall under any of these three categories:  

  • Present/visible (The exec has a social media profile but does not actively share content. For example, this might include an exec who has a LinkedIn profile but doesn’t actively post links or articles for their connections to see.)

  • Posting (The exec communicates on the profiles on which they are visible.) 

  • Engaging (The exec goes beyond posting and interacts with others on social media.) 

An “engaging” presence is the goal, of course. To make the most of social media, execs should have a profile, share content and interact with others by liking or commenting on their posts.

Doing so “typically includes greater visibility for the individual and the organization online,” said Krista Neher, CEO of Boot Camp Digital. “This can lead to new clients, press opportunities, speaking engagements, stronger connections with business partners, the ability to recruit talent and much more.”

2. Be authentic. 
Consumers can spot the difference between marketing jargon and authentic commentary, especially on social media. When you engage online, spread your unique perspective and industry expertise in your own dialect. Think of this as talking to your friends, while adhering to company communications policies, of course.

“CEOs choosing to go social should develop their own voice, lose the corporate jargon and communicate in a familiar way that his or her audience will be comfortable engaging with,” Gaines-Ross said. 

For example, Bill Gates shares candidly about issues he’s exploring on social medial, with a focus on technology and philanthropy. He recently shared a report on the future of nuclear power and an article about an engineer who fights inequity



Meanwhile, digital marketing expert Neil Patel keep his social presence business-oriented, offering conversational videos with how-tos and insights about trends and research in his industry. 



And HuffPost founder and Thrive Global CEO Arianna Huffington shares about women’s issues, business and finding live-work balance with words like “we” and "us," which connects her to her readers.  


These execs speak to their passions, whether personal or professional, through an open, ongoing conversation with their social followers.  

You can also establish authenticity by tying in elements of your personal experience, according to Cassandra Direnzo, social media strategist at Walker Sands Communications. Telling behind-the-scenes stories and sharing the process of overcoming business challenges are ways to connect with your audience, she said. As a company founder, you might share about the challenges of growing a startup. An exec with writing skills could share techniques they use to develop white papers. A finance exec can explain how to recover from a poor-performing investment. 

“These stories offer something to which many people can relate, and this approach allows the executive to be more human versus just an entity of the company,” said Direnzo.

3. Be positive. 
While controversy is a surefire way to get attention, maintaining a positive online presence is generally the company duty of any exec, unless it’s part of a carefully-crafted marketing scheme. And even then, the benefits of negative posts are debatable.

“When it comes to negativity in general, whether it is about competitors, personal problems or complaining about something, it is usually good to just avoid it,” said Neher. 

However, that doesn’t mean execs shouldn’t take sides on important issues, said Direnzo. 

“… If [execs] truly want to take advantage of social media and make it a worthwhile investment, they really can't avoid the opportunity to address issues,” said Direnzo. “People are looking to brands' leaders to enact change on key issues.” 

Universal issues like global warming, clean energy shortages and gender bias in the workplace are difficult to remain silent on, especially if your company or industry is central to the discussion. Weber Shandwick’s research on CEO activism supports the idea that involvement in major social issues can positively impact and differentiate a CEO or corporate entity. Ultimately, deciding whether and how to address a particular issue is the role of individual execs. 

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4. Be focused. 
When posting, be sure your message aligns with your personal brand and broader objectives of your company. This is particularly relevant when your company has a specific message, or stance, in regards to social issues. 

For example, “… If you are working for a company like Patagonia with a clear (and very public) corporate mission around the environment, it would be difficult to share personal messages supporting policies or organizations that are against these values,” said Neher. 

Save personal rants or offhand observations for texts to your friends.

5. Be aware. 
Even if you delete a tweet or post, it can come back to bite you. Be aware that there are real-world consequences and business implications for your online activity. Develop a thoughtful and strategic approach, and remember that your customers, board and boss are watching what you say on social media.

“There are so many examples on social media of someone complaining about something only for it to later come back to haunt them,” said Neher. “Any negativity or controversy should be carefully navigated as a part of a broader strategy.”

Imagine that everyone in your network will be able to see what you post, for eternity. (It might sound dramatic, but it’s essentially true.)

Social media superstars 

If you’re an exec and ready to join the social media conversation, observe the online presence of other execs who have leading voices.

Direnzo cites T-Mobile CEO John Legere as an example. Legere has over 6 million Twitter followers, uses a variety of social media channels and regularly employs live video to extend his brand mission. 

“He balances humor, his personal life and company information with ease,” Direnzo said. 


Another example is Pete Blackshaw, the CEO of Cintrifuse and former head of digital innovation at Nestle. In each of his recent roles, Blackshaw tailored his social media activity to enhance his personal and company brands among consumers and industry peers. At Nestle, he often posted videos of his digital acceleration teams. At Cintrifuse, he posts information about technology industry trends and shares growth stories from the company’s homebase of Cincinnati, Ohio. 

“[Blackshaw] is viewed as a thought leader in the industry, largely because of the meaningful social media content that he creates,” Direnzo said.


The future of execs on social media 

Weber Shandwick’s 2017 "Socializing Your CEO" report found that 50% of top global public company CEOs were “present or visible” on social networks. And this upward trend is only going to gain momentum, Gaines-Ross said. 

From responding to company crises to promoting new products to addressing social issues, social media offers a direct way for execs to address their investors, industry peers and consumers at a time when their individual voices have special attention and clout.

“Based on what we have observed in the wake of recent societal issues, we especially believe that as corporate activism becomes more common, we are going to see executives choose social media as their first mode of response,” said Gaines-Ross. “So long as a company’s stakeholders are on social media, that’s where we’ll find business leaders.”