Twitter-Phobic CEOs: Transparency Is Scary When it's Immediate

Posted by Dave Burdick

If you were a CEO, would you be on Twitter? 

A recent Wall Street Journal story shows most chief executives shy away from social media.  

"Seven in 10 Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence on major social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google+, according to a recent report by CEO.com and analytics company Domo.

Among those who do, 4% have known Twitter accounts and 8% use Facebook under their own names, according to the study, which was conducted in May. By contrast, 34% of all Americans are on Twitter and 50% use Facebook."

Essentially, the reasons for CEOs steering clear of Twitter is that they (a) don't see the value or (b) are afraid of a public gaffe that would get them in trouble. 

I'm a social media guy, so I see value (as do some folks quoted in the story) in CEOs being on Twitter, engaging and letting the public know who they are and what they stand for—but I do see why they'd cite that second reason. 

Conscientious consumers want transparency. They want to know not only what's in their product, who made it and how, but also what the core values of a company are. And a CEO's core values are a perceived shorthand for that, which is why so many brains shorted out when Whole Foods CEO John Mackey turned out not to believe in global warming

And that really did inform they way some in my social circle thought about that company—not because of some outrageous quote, but because of a fundamental difference on a big issue.

The other side of that coin: If we feel we know and understand a CEO—and the executive's values align with ours—we're more likely to buy from his or her company. That's the value of transparency, right? Let people in. Build trust. Build loyalty. 

But the fear remains. The Journal story mentions a CEO who's pushed to be on Twitter but also very carefully edited. I get it, but is that really helping anybody? 

A little (tiny!) amount of blame can be put on we news consumers. Let's face it: When somebody screws up on Twitter or somewhere else, that screw-up gets sent around pretty quickly. Here's a quote from a great David Carr column this summer (the topic was on politicians demanding to pre-approve quotations for publication, which I think is actually a pretty reasonable analog to why we don't see CEOs on Twitter):

“I hate that we find ourselves at this pass,” said David Von Drehle, a writer for Time who has covered politics for a long time. “But we are not blameless. Sound-bite journalism that is more interested in reporting isolated ‘gaffes’ than conveying the actual substance of a person’s ideas will naturally cause story subjects to behave defensively.”

If we want CEOs to be more authentic, maybe we can all agree to care slightly less about sound bites and more about substance. What do you think? Unreasonable? Hopeless cause? Or are CEOs right to stay in the background? Let me know. 

What else can we do, as consumers, to encourage transparency? 

Image of John Mackey via Wikimedia Commons