Social media & the maverick CEO

There have been several examples this year of people who were fired for something they’ve posted to social media. But what happens when it is the CEO posting inappropriate comments on social media?
We’ve seen a report that the hotel chain Marriott fired an employee for favouriting a tweet about Tibet on its official account. We’ve witnessed a writer working on the video game, Guild Wars 2, fired for accusing a fan of mansplaining on Twitter. We’ve also seen a woman losing her NASA internship after sending sweary tweets to a man who turned out to be on the National Space Council.
When those involved are higher profile, it gets complicated. TV company, ABC, cancelled Roseanne after it’s namesake posted racist tweets, and Disney (which is also ABC’s parent company), fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn after people re-posted offensive tweets the director had published before he worked on the franchise (many were from 2008-9).
Which brings us to the founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla, Elon Musk. Musk has had a busy 2018 on social media. Back in July, he accused a British cave diver, involved in the rescue of 13 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand, of being a paedophile. The tweet caused a 4% drop in Tesla’s share price.
In August he tweeted he’d secured funding to take Tesla private at $420 a share… only, he hadn’t. It turned out the tweet was a weed reference made to make his girlfriend giggle. The SEC accused him of misleading investors, fining him $20m and fining Tesla $20m. He also had to step down as chairman.  To appease the SEC, Tesla had to appoint two new independent directors to the board and agree to monitor Musk’s external communications “more closely”. In October he mocked the SEC on Twitter.
As reported on Wired, Elon Musk’s tweets have the power to move markets.
Tesla stocks
But Musk isn’t an employee or contractor who can just be fired without notice. He’s the founder of the company, and integral to its performance. People love him or hate him. While an incident like smoking cannabis on Joe Rogan’s podcast is seen as outrageous by some, others find it all part of his charm.

How can brands protect themselves from their founders and CEOs?

1. Build the brand’s independent profile

If the CEO is the public face of a business, the founding CEO is virtually encoded in its DNA. Their stories are intertwined, and always will be. Everything the CEO does is a reflection on the brand itself, and it can often look like the brand has no identity independent from its progenitor.
Startups frequently build their profiles on the backs of their founders, but there comes a time when the brand has to develop an independent identity. When the company can function without the constant input of the CEO and can continue to thrive without them.

2. Understand that social media’s power works both ways

CEOs from various sectors use social media to help boost their profiles and showcase their brand’s innovations. It helps them create a persona and build-up a following of passionate brand advocates, but it also makes them vulnerable. Most CEOs have a healthy ego, and that helps when you’re trying to make a name for yourself in a competitive field, but it can also attract criticism.
As we see with Musk, CEOs with powerful personalities sometimes find it hard not to bite when they come under attack. There are two problems with this. Firstly, it doesn’t look good when your multimillionaire, highly-influential CEO attacks random members of the public on social media. Secondly, it has the power to create a crisis.
When Elon Musk tweeted about sending a mini-sub to rescue the Thai soccer team from that cave system back in July, various people suggested that it was for the publicity. In the end, the sub didn’t get used. But instead of still talking about the possibilities of the mini-sub created by a team of experts from Musk’s businesses, people are focusing on Musk’s tweet about the diver, after he said the submarine was a PR stunt.

3. Agree on communication guidelines

CEOs have the power to shape a brand’s reputation in many positive and negative ways, and social media gives them a way to do this instantly and with little oversight. It’s essential to agree on a set of communication guidelines that everyone in the company follows; if not brands can have situations where the CEO makes statements that haven’t been agreed or announces decisions that employees haven’t been informed about.
As we’ve seen, the CEO’s statements have the power to move markets and damage the brand’s reputation. I’m not suggesting that the CEO has to get pre-approval for all of their tweets, but company sensitive information should be cleared with internal stakeholders, not tweeted out at their whim.
Ensure there are separate social media accounts for the corporate updates, as well as the one that the CEO gets to use themselves. By separating the two, it shows that the main corporate account has the marketing messages, whereas the CEO’s account can be used for more personal, behind the scenes thoughts. For example, John Legere is the self-proclaimed “magenta-wearing, customer-loving” CEO of T-Mobile. He regularly gets involved in customer conversations on Twitter, as well as posting personal stories and videos – even live posting his favourite recipes. He rarely appears to tow a corporate line but shows buckets of personality, in keeping with the brand.
John Legere

Some CEOs are larger-than-life. They thrive on creating high-energy and excitement. They don’t want to be controlled or to be told to adhere to some corporate message, but social media is a powerful tool.
Even when a tweet is deleted within a few minutes of posting, you can guarantee that someone will have taken a screenshot and it will be all over social media, and possibly the major news sites, in hours.
While CEOs have a tremendous amount of authority, they’re still representatives of the brand, and they need to act in the brand’s best interest. Sometimes that means stepping away from social media, and thinking about what’s best for the brand.

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