Something strange is happening in the C-suite. Comprising an organization’s top innovators and risk managers, the cream of the corporate crop often suffers paralysis in one key business arena — one that offers unprecedented opportunity for customer engagement and brand promotion. Advised repeatedly to join the party, too many sit on the sidelines — while others build their own following and their organization’s reputation.
What’s stopping these dynamos from seizing the day? In many cases, the culprit is fear — of social media.
Some 2.1 billion people worldwide have at least one social media account, and the number grows daily, according to Internet Live Stats, a site displaying Internet-use data in real time. That’s an enormous crop of potential customers, ripe for the picking: Internet users reportedly spend 28 percent of their online time browsing and posting to social networks.
One person these users aren’t likely to come across in their online engagements: the chief executive officer.
In one 2014 report from software company Domo and CEO.com, more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 CEOs said they had no social media presence: no Facebook page, no Twitter feed, not even a LinkedIn profile.
Compare this with our nation’s chief executive. President Obama’s use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and MySpace as well as a highly social, interactive website that is credited with helping him win the presidency. During his tenure, he has also used social media to engage voters in a variety of issues, and to garner their support. But too few in the executive arena have followed his lead.
It’s not just the giants who are staying away: Only one-quarter of all CEOs worldwide engage on social media, according to a recent study from public relations firm Weber Shandwick.
These numbers, and others like them, tell a surprising tale: Professionals who have networked and communicated and stayed abreast of business trends throughout their careers now are opting out of the No. 1 online activity in the world.
Asked why, nearly one-third of these non-social executives said they’re concerned about risk, according to the CEO.com report. And, given all the caveats, why wouldn’t they be? The Internet is rife with “what-if” scenarios chilling enough to instill fear into the most intrepid of souls:
- Post your vacation photos on social media, and risk being burglarized while you’re gone.
- Befriend people you don’t know, and risk exposing your account and those of your friends — as well as your organization — to cyberattack.
- Click on any link, and risk a malware infection.
- Post something personal, and risk ridicule, or losing customers.
- Post anything professional, and risk legal action, or even losing your job.
Prudence is always better than recklessness, of course, especially when it comes to cybersecurity. But when we consider warnings like these, perhaps we ought, also, to consider the source.
The admonition not to post vacation photos, for instance, harkens to a 2011 survey in which three-quarters of burglars said social media helped them choose their targets. Fifty-four percent said that homeowners who post their whereabouts online are virtually inviting crooks into their homes.
Read the fine print, however, and you’ll see that only 50 burglars responded to the survey. A statistically significant number worthy of alarm bells? You be the judge. And yet, the results are frequently quoted as fact today.
Do social-media-inspired break-ins happen? Perhaps. But burglaries and thefts were a problem long before the Internet came along, and yet people still leave their homes for work, to run errands, and, yes, to take vacations. The risk has always been there, but we mitigate it with security systems, for instance, and neighborhood watch efforts.
That’s not to say that social media isn’t risky business. It can be. As Facebook recently announced, cybercriminals — sometimes sponsored by foreign governments — lurk on social sites, often assuming false identities and making “friends” with users in order to access their personal information, or even hacking passwords and taking over accounts.
Those frightened off by the risks to personal reputation or organizational brand also have plenty of reason for concern. Chances are, you’ve heard news reports of CXOs and other prominent executives’ losing their jobs, or of businesses suddenly a-swirl in controversy, because of a single outrageous executive tweet or post.
And yet, who in the C-suite doesn’t deal with risk on a daily basis? Along with its announcement of threats from state-sponsored hackers, the site mentioned above encouraged account holders to enable the strict security controls provided. It is possible to manage one’s social media risk, and who better than the CXO to discern best practices for doing so?
Besides, there’s another risk that CXOs may also want to consider: that of becoming the proverbial wallflower at the social media party, refusing to engage and so sitting alone, invisible and irrelevant.
Having a social media presence can build trust among customers, investors, and employees. In a survey published by BrandFog in 2014, 82 percent of U.S. respondents said that when a company’s executives use social media, they raise brand awareness and reputation, and help establish their company as a leader in the industry.
Those who don’t participate also risk becoming yesterday’s news. Social media is the new media — the primary source of news and information not only for consumers but also for journalists. Half the journalists queried in a recent survey from ING said social media is their main source of news. The CXO who isn’t there may not get quoted, or even asked to comment.
Technology has given us not only a more complex world to navigate, but also one that’s increasingly flat, connecting us in an instant with those who, previously, might as well have been worlds away. Like attending a party with more than 2 billion people present, the risks of going social can be formidable — but also, with proper security measures in place, manageable. Those who shy away may find themselves in the unenviable position of not being invited at all.
JR Reagan is the global chief information security officer of Deloitte. He also serves as professional faculty at Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Columbia universities. Follow him @IdeaXplorer. Read more from JR Reagan.