The executive tweet: rules of engagement

The tweeting CEO is becoming part of the social media landscape - but there are some important rules to follow.

Not every business leader wants to take to the twittersphere with the gusto of US President Barack Obama, Richard Branson or Rupert Murdoch – but the latest research suggests many more soon will.

IBM recently polled 1700 global CEOs and found that although just 16 per cent had participated in social media, the proportion of social CEOs would likely grow to 57 per cent within five years.

But while the medium holds huge promise for those savvy enough to master the 140-character grab, Twitter gaffes can damage credibility and even make headlines around the world.

Take the infamous US teen who, in the aftermath of the presidential election, wrote she was "moving to Australia, because their president is a Christian and actually supports what he says".

One Australian CEO braving the new social platform is Ken Brinsden (@kenbatlas) who heads mining company Atlas Iron – although with 40 followers, he concedes he has yet to tap a mainstream audience.

Brinsden says that as an industry, mining has not done well presenting its community initiatives and the activities of its people in a way that can enhance its relationship with the community.

He believes Twitter may hold the key to taking the company's messages beyond mainstream financial and industry media.

“I see social media as one tool that might be able to assist in that process,” he says.

Social media experts agree that switched-on execs can glean some big business benefits from well-worded tweets: extending the reach of their brands to a completely new audience.

They also have the potential to bring more to the medium than, say, the marketing department or the Gen Y geek, according to Susan Gunelius, author of Content Marketing for Dummies and CEO of US marketing and communications company KeySplash Creative.

“Anyone can learn to use a tool like Twitter, but not everyone understands why they're using it and how to use it to achieve business goals,” she says.

Because business leaders are naturally good communicators, Twitter can provide them with more reward than risk, according to Gavin Heaton, principal analyst at Constellation Research, an advisory firm for execs seeking to tap emerging and disruptive technologies.

Two recent prominent Twitter gaffes, for instance, were sourced back to more junior staff. A retail employee of Vodafone Australia, for instance, recently tweeted demeaning comments about customers, describing them among other things as “mentally retarded”.

And when an offensive tweet about President Obama's late grandmother was issued on behalf of KitchenAid in the lead-up to the 2012 campaign, the US retailer pointed to a social media team member who, as it later wrote, “won't be tweeting for us anymore”.

But as with any live medium, there are risks. To avoid hitting the wrong note on Twitter, experts offer a few basic rules of engagement:


The cool thing about Twitter is that there aren't really any rules, according to Krista Neher, author of Social Media Field Guide and CEO of online marketing company Boot Camp Digital. However, she says this also makes it one of the hardest social networks for people to "get”, so they aren't really sure what to do once they get there.

“The key is to know what you want to achieve and use that to build your profile and find connections with a common interest,” she says.

Before you take the plunge, get the feel of it first by following people who tweet on topics that interest you, experts suggest.

The most engaging tweets “educate, inform and inspire”, according to Jeff Bullas, social media marketing consultant, author and blogger.

He says in the business world, it's the content behind your tweets that will provide the most value and attract followers.

That means generating original “shareworthy” content, retweeting great content from others and adding your own thoughts and ideas.

He also says that although some CEOs really struggle with this, Twitter is about humanising them and their brand. He points to recruitment industry CEO Greg Savage as a successful example.

He says it doesn't hurt to tweet something personal – for instance, it's OK to say you've just been cycling in Melbourne, as long as you're comfortable with it.

Heaton also urges CEOs to be authentic: talk about what's going on in their industry, what they're excited about or the books they're reading. “People want to see whole-of-life personalities behind those business names,” he says.

However he advises CEOs to also get familiar with the company's social media policy.

“They are the most authoritative voice in the business, but they do need to be aware of what else is going on in marketing and communications,” he says.


Gunelius says one of the biggest mistakes that many business people make is using Twitter as a tool for direct selling. She says excessive self-promotion is a “guaranteed path to failure”.

“Share and publish useful, meaningful, and interesting information that your audience wants to receive from you. Don't operate in a silo. You need to build relationships through Twitter to truly experience its benefits,” she says.

Neher agrees. Some people send direct messages asking their followers to like their Facebook page or with offers to their products, she notes. Twitter, however, is more like a cocktail party than a sales meeting, she says, so use it to get to know people, join in the conversation and build relationships.

“You wouldn't go to a party and ask people to buy from you - you'd get to know them and build a relationship that naturally evolves into a mutually beneficial relationship,” she says.

The social media editor for Reuters, Anthony De Rosa, recently provided these tips on social news website reddit: always verify your facts before you tweet, check your spelling, and only delete a tweet if it is “going to put someone's life in danger". In any other instance, he advises you send a follow-up tweet with a correction.

According to Bullas, a great rule of thumb is to avoid tweeting anything you would not like your mother to read. “It's common sense. Maybe write it down first and review it,” he suggests.