To Avoid Stormy Waters for Their Business, CEOs Need to Learn How to Dive into Social Media

09/10/2013 14:03 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

I recently came across a very interesting report by Deloitte titled "Exploring Strategic Risk" that summarised findings from interviews with 300 executives around the world. Interestingly, rather than focusing on operational, financial or environmental risks, executives rated reputation as the highest impact risk area their businesses face today. The report quoted ANZ's Jennifer Evans who summarised it nicely: "As a consequence of social media, reputations built up over decades can be challenged in an instant. Customers are able to make decisions on an organisation based on social media comment, potentially well before your ability to be able to defend or articulate a response."

It is surprising, therefore, that despite the huge impact that social media can have on reputational risk, a recent study by Domo and found that nearly 70% of Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence whatsoever on any major social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. The one obvious exception is LinkedIn - of the 30% of CEOs that choose to engage in social media, nearly all of them (28%) do so through the professional social network.

This exception is not so surprising and also highlights one of the major obstacles that stop C-Suite executives from engaging with social media - lack of control in an environment that is ever changing and evolving, but also hard to quantify in terms of impact vs. effort of engagement.

The reality, however, is that if senior executives want their organisations to be prepared and resilient in the face of reputational risk, the drive towards social media engagement needs to come directly from them. Hence, given the rise of social media and the public's hunger for transparency, they may want to consider learning more about this medium.

How to successfully do that is not always straightforward, but here are a few tips on how to get started:

Learn the basics

Before jumping into the ocean that is social media, it would be important to test the water. You can do that by researching and learning more about the social media tools and technologies out there, as well as their benefits and drawbacks. Ask your communications team to give you a short run down on the current social media landscape so that you can understand what is available and would be useful for you.

Define your purpose for engaging and find the right medium

Take a few moments to listen into some of the conversations that are happening through social media channels. That will help you to fully understand the landscape, but also to define what will be the purpose and platform of your engagement. Choose a subject that can have a positive impact on your business, but also that you are passionate about. Based on your engagement objectives you can also define the right social media channel to use. Again, engaging with your communications team to help you define your purpose and find the right medium can be a helpful and efficient way to make the first step to engagement. Of course, they can also give you guidance on ensuring that your social media activity is aligned with the other communication activities taking place to make the most of your outreach.

Start from the inside out

Before you swim the ocean, you can trial the pond. Many organisations today use social media tools to engage with employees. Don't be afraid to test the waters by becoming part of some of the conversations that are happening internally within your organisation. Apart from helping you to start feeling more comfortable about social media in a much safer environment, this engagement can also help with strengthening a culture of collaboration and boosting employee morale.

Be authentic

Social media is very much like a face-to-face conversation - you have to be authentic to be believable, and you can definitely not send your communications director to do the talking for you. Don't handover social media engagement to other people - do it yourself and stay true to what you believe in and are passionate about.

Consider your followers as your customers

Use your understanding of what makes businesses work to be successful in social media. Understand the objectives of your audience, as well as consider their appetite for content when engaging with them. Ensure that you are serving a combination of content that you create and that you share. But also be empathetic to what your followers are trying to get out of this social media "relationship". Is it information, advice, a platform to voice concerns or simply an opportunity to connect? Understanding your followers, like you would aim to understand your customers to ensure your business success, is critical when engaging through social media platforms.

Like anything new and unfamiliar social media can be daunting and unpredictable. The risks of not engaging, however, are not to be ignored in an environment of raising public expectations for transparency and open conversation. While it can be sometimes hard to quantify the impact of jumping into the social media unknown, senior executives can benefit from dipping their toes in order to manage potential reputational risks in a sea of instantaneous global communications.