Brainstorm: Senior Executives take to Twitter

A small group of senior executives is using Twitter and other social media platforms to project their personal brands. It’s proving good for business but there are potential pitfalls.

Amid the media celebrities, sports personalities and social commentators that draw followers and top the trending topics on Twitter, a surprise moniker recently appeared – @MichaelJordaan.

Michael Jordaan inhabits a world far removed from the galaxy of most prominent Tweeters whose spontaneous and pithy comments are instantly tracked by thousands of followers. Jordaan is the CEO of First National Bank (FNB).

A large financial institution may seem an unlikely home for a rising social media phenomenon. But banking is a business that touches most South Africans, many of whom have strong opinions about the experience. Jordaan’s frequent, insightful and sometimes witty observations about the industry have drawn a strong following. More than 2 700 people are currently following Jordaan on Twitter. Key to the popularity of Jordaan’s Twitter service is his willingness to break the traditional bounds of corporate communications. He is not shy to express opinions, engage in discussion or admit mistakes. His Twitter conversations often reach beyond banking and the world of finance. Wine is a frequent topic. When he is not overseeing the sprawling business of FNB, Jordaan is as likely as not to be found working on his Stellenbosch wine estate.

“I started using Twitter for fun. Now I’m addicted to it. I like the immediacy and the brevity of it,” he says.

Jordaan is one of a small but growing group of top executives who are using influential social media platforms to project a personal image or brand to a wide and diverse audience. Many of them use several social media platforms but Twitter is by far the most prominent. The management of such personal brands is set to become an important issue in South African business in the next few years. It’s an issue that will concern not just the leaders and figureheads of major organisations but all employees who have access to social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. And that’s just about everyone.

Visible and available

“It’s part of the new world of business,” says Craig Rodney (@Craigrodney), MD at social media consultancy Cerebra Communications. “In the past, senior executives communicated in boardrooms behind closed doors. Now many are out in the open, visible and available to their customers and engaging in dialogue with other executives in the social media space,” says Rodney.

This process, he says, ‘humanises’ and ‘democratises’ organisations. Customers develop a personal affinity with executives and the organisations they represent. Employees also have access to senior management and insight into their thoughts on the business. Many of the traditional barriers that hinder access to organisations, and stifle communications within them, are being pulled down by the rise of social media, claims Rodney.

Jordaan says his decision to begin tweeting two years ago was a personal choice. “There was no grand strategy behind it,” he says. Nonetheless, Jordaan’s Twitter account has proved good for business. “It provides a very good feedback loop. If things are going wrong in the business, I get to hear about them on Twitter long before the hierarchical channels of the organisation inform me. I can respond quickly to address problems and get them fixed.”

He adds that Twitter is also quick to deliver positive feedback. The bank’s recent advertising campaign, for example, prompted many Twitter users to tweet their approval to Jordaan.

Authenticity essential

FNB has begun to use a variety of social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, to promote its banking services. Its marketing department launched a corporate Twitter account under the name of the fictional character RB Jacobs (@Rbjacobs) to encourage customers to engage with the bank. However, Jordaan is keeping his personal Twitter account. It’s very much an expression of his own personality, he says.

Vodacom CEO Pieter Uys (@uyspj) runs his own personal Twitter account and keeps it distinct from the group’s official services (@Vodacom and @Vodacom111). “I’m surprised we don’t see more company executives on Twitter. There’s nothing quite like it for getting instant, unfiltered feedback. It’s a great way to understand what customers like and what turns them off,” he says.

Uys’ willingness to engage with consumers and address their complaints as well as receive compliments has earned him a following of nearly 2 500 people on Twitter. His popularity, however, lies not only in his ability to deliver a service to customers, but also in the ways he projects an appealing personality.

Mike Saunders (@mikeasaunders), CEO at social media agency DigitLab, stresses that authenticity is essential for the success of a personal brand. “People want a connection with the executive rather than the company,” he says.

Such a connection demands a lot of executives. They must be prepared to share something of themselves – their thoughts, their interests and their activities. Bleating sanitised corporate news through Twitter is a sure turn-off for any prospective audience. Furthermore, good personal brands depend on executives making themselves accessible – an occasional tweet is no good. They must also be responsive. Answer questions. Engage in conversation and be prepared to take criticism.

Servest group CEO Dennis Zietsman (@Zeeserve) says dialogue with customers using Twitter provides management with greater insight into the workings of the business. “It has taught us to think more broadly about our company and our industry,” he says.

Credibility is another essential ingredient. Deloitte’s digital channels executive David Graham (@DavidGrahamSA) has racked up a following of 36 000 people on his personal Twitter account in the past two years. He uses Twitter in conjunction with a variety of other social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, YouTube, blogs and e-mail, to communicate Deloitte’s ‘thoughtware’ to senior management throughout South Africa’s top 500 companies.

”You develop a relationship with your clients using Twitter. The information you broadcast must be consistent and relevant. If you send out junk, it will damage your credibility,” says Graham.

He warns that Twitter must be mixed with other social media platforms to achieve successful business-to-business communication. “Most C-suite executives still prefer e-mail,” he says.

While a strong personal brand can raise the profile and improve the perception of both the executive and the organisation they represent, it also presents its own challenges and potential pitfalls.

“Executives need to draw a line between their professional and personal lives and decide how much of themselves they are going to disclose. They must be clear about what they can share about their organisations,” says DigitLab’s Saunders.

He adds that it is essential for executives to regulate how they communicate. “Any indiscreet or inappropriate remark can be highly damaging for their personal profile and the organisation they represent.”

The world of social media is littered with examples of celebrities, politicians and business executives who have embarrassed themselves spectacularly by broadcasting personal information that has gone public.

Saunders advocates that organisations draw up a clear strategy that defines the parameters within which executives and all other employees may communicate across social media platforms.