Why CEOs find social media a double-edged sword

09 Jul,2012

By Nikhil Menon


Recently, the CEO of Southwest Airlines in theUShit on a novel idea to get customer feedback directly from the source. He put up a question on LinkedIn asking: ‘How can an airline make you, the flier, more productive?’ He got 137 answers from people; many of them detailed essays on what his airline could do to improve its customer experience.


“That kind of real, authentic feedback is very hard to get when you’re the CEO,” said Hari Krishnan, CEO of LinkedInIndia, as he recounts this story. And there, in a nutshell, you have perhaps the single most important thing about social networks – they are a great leveller. They also blur the line between what was considered one’s professional and personal space.


From Donald Trump’s tirades against Barack Obama to Michael Dell’s constant praise for Dell’s employees worldwide and Vijay Mallya’s defensive tweets hitting back at critics of his ailing airline, CEOs are stepping up to make themselves heard. And while these are early days inIndia, promoter-CEOs and heads of business families like Anand Mahindra, Mallya and Naveen Jindal are early movers. The list of appointed CEOs on social media like HCL boss Vineet Nayar and RBS India head Meera Sanyal, however, is still rather small.


Prakash Iyer, CEO of Kimberly-Clark Lever, admits that Indian executives are one step behind foreign CEOs in cashing in on the social media phenomenon: “Whenever something new comes along, we tend to see the negatives more than the good things. But CEOs, no matter what generation or industry they’re from, have to realise that social media is here to stay. And if they’re not using it, they are missing something.”


If that’s true for heads of private companies, it’s truer for senior bureaucrats inIndia, who are known more for shunning the spotlight than soliciting it. Considering that, Amitabh Kant is a maverick. The 55-year old CEO of the DMIC (Delhi Mumbai Infrastructure Corridor) has an active Facebook account with 1,500-odd friends, a Twitter account he occasionally updates and even a personal blog, amitabhkant.in. Mr Kant reads and writes extensively on his pet interests – travel, urbanisation, photography, technology and cuisine – and also likes connecting with people who share those interests: “Social media has been a powerful and enlightening influence on my work. I read and discuss articles on infrastructure and urbanisation around the world.”


What’s more, he thinks that others of his ilk should follow suit. “What’s the point of resisting social media? It’s a highly transparent world,” he said, relaxing at hisDelhihome after his mandatory Sunday morning golf session. “And civil servants need to understand that, especially in the RTI (right to information) age. In fact, I feel that the government should ask every bureaucrat above the rank of joint secretary to compulsorily be on social mediums to become more accessible to the people.”


As long as we’re in the realm of wishful thinking, Jessie Paul has a gem of her own. As the battle to decideIndia’s next president rages on, the managing director of Paul Writer jokingly urges people to consider her for the position. When asked about her ambition to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan, she chuckled: “I am a woman, so I am in a political minority. Besides, I am a Tamilian, married to a Bengali, so I should be acceptable to both Jayalalithaa and Mamta di. Why not?”


Her irrefutable logic is met with much hilarity and even endorsement by the people who follow her. But looking beyond her easy candour, what’s interesting is how the managing director of Paul Writer effortlessly wields social media across half-a-dozen platforms.


For Ms Paul, who is a regular on content sharing and networking sites like Slideshare, Youtube, Facebook and Flickr, online networking sites are food and drink.


The author of a book on frugal marketing and former Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of Wipro was one of LinkedIn’s first users inIndiain the early 2000s. In fact, Mr Krishnan of LinkedInIndiasaid that Jessie Paul is a case study, in the way she created a network of CMOs in her earlier avatar to trade best practices. Ms Paul eventually quit Wipro and started Paul Writer, through which she gives companies the benefit of her experience on tackling the social media beast. “Social media is more than about making friends or killing time; there’s some serious knowledge sharing going on, and more importantly, there are huge business opportunities waiting to be explored there,” she said.


Some may argue that given her marketing background, it should be no surprise that Paul is so comfortable with social media. And it’s also worth mentioning that Amitabh Kant hasn’t been a ‘typical’ insular bureaucrat either. It’s been easier for Paul and Kant to brand themselves because social media has always been core to their interests and professions.


Mr Kant, a 1980 Kerala cadre IAS officer, was earlier Joint Tourism Secretary with the Ministry of Tourism. He was also part of the teams that came up with the ‘Incredible India’ and ‘God’s Own Country’ (Kerala) branding campaigns in his former avatar. Mr Kant has written a book, Branding India, and is now co-launching an online initiative to promote ‘ancient Indian cuisine’. “It’s important to have interests outside of work. And using social media doesn’t take really much time – not when you’ve got the whole world on your smartphone,” he said.


Using social media for casual networking may be a stretch, given that many CEOs don’t even use it for work. Tanvi Bhatt, founder of Panache Studios, advises many senior managers on personal brand management, of which online reputation management is a part. She said that less than 5 per cent of the senior executives she meets have a social media account.


“They’re not even on LinkedIn, which I find amazing. These days, clients and partners Google senior executives before meeting them face to face. And if they don’t find them online, they start having doubts about the person’s or organisation’s credibility,” she said.


The reasons for not having an account vary. Some CEOs are conservative by nature. Others don’t understand social media – and prefer to be safe rather than sorry. And then there are those who feel ‘I don’t need to do this, I’m the CEO’. Ms Bhatt said: “A lot of them think in terms of ‘what’s in it for me?’, whereas they should be thinking ‘what can I share from my knowledge and experience with the world?”


Rajiv Dingra’s company WATConsult was one of the early movers in the social media consulting space back in 2007. And while he’s done a lot of work with companies, getting CEOs to apply themselves to the socialscape has been frustrating. “Frankly, Anand Mahindra is the only top CEO doing a good job – he connects with interesting people on a personal level, addresses complaints and leverages customer testimonials. The rest are rather boring,” he says. But there are those, like 30-year old venture capitalist Kris Nair, who are the very opposite of boring.


Mr Nair, who heads Opdrage Ventures and has invested $20 million in about 33 companies so far, is unapologetically himself. He speaks his mind on everything from entrepreneurship to poetry to physics, rails at ‘idiots’ with the odd four- or five-letter word thrown in for emphasis. Sitting at a posh coffee shop in Bandra, Mumbai, he pushes his iPhone across the table so I can get a look at all the social apps on it. After the first dozen or so, I lose count.


“A lot of my deal sourcing happens through social media. So I have to speak to my target audience of entrepreneurs and members of startup communities in a language they understand. I can never be a ‘suit’ and keep saying the right things,” he said, adding the last line with obvious contempt. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however. Once Mr Nair wrote against the Anna Hazare-led agitation and that got him in trouble, with threats pouring in online and offline. Then there was the time one of the investors in his fund asked him to curb his freewheeling style on social media.


“They were afraid I might leak confidential information. That didn’t make me stop, of course, but I have mellowed down for sure,” Mr Dingra conceded that at some level, he understands the concerns senior executives have. “Being on social network is like being in a press conference 24/7. People can be particularly myopic and unforgiving on the Internet. The media can take your words and twist them around. You need to have a thick skin and take the bad with the good.”


Ms Paul added: “Unlike western consumers, some buyers inIndiaare still immature. People will target you online if the washing machine made by your company doesn’t work. You have to be pretty confident of your service, especially if you’re in a B2C model.”


While the possibility of being targeted always looms large, Meera Sanyal, chairperson and country executive of Royal Bank of Scotland Group feels social media provides a quick and very interactive channel for customer feedback.


“While some of this may not be complimentary- if one uses the opportunity to remedy problems swiftly, then the organisation can build really good relationships with clients,” she said, “Therefore, I do act swiftly upon complaints directed to me in my official capacity, but in general on social media, I interact as an individual, sharing personal thoughts and views.”


Ms Sanyal stood as an independent candidate for elections fromSouth Mumbaiin

2009. She may not have made it to Parliament as the people’s representative, but is tremendously popular among tweeple, or people on Twitter. She says she began using Twitter ‘on an experimental basis’ some years ago. While she was a little hesitant at first, with some coaching by youngsters at home and work, she’s now a total convert.


“The 140-character ceiling forces crispness of thought and posts from across the world keep me updated on the latest news and candid views of some very interesting people,” she says. How To Draw The Line – The first and perhaps most important thing to know before creating an account is which medium works best for you. Do you want to make friends, build business contacts, be a thought leader, recruit people or just read the latest news from your industry?


Jessie Paul offers an easy-to-remember guide. “Facebook and LinkedIn are about who you know, while Twitter, Pinterest, Slideshare and Google Plus are about what you know,” she said. If getting on to social media is the first step, the second and perhaps more important thing is to avoid making a fool of oneself. Mallikarjunadas CR, CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group, said he doesn’t know what to think when he sees his peers playing games or watching dodgy videos in the middle of the day.


“You have to be aware that people will form opinions based on all this,” he said, quoting the example of a person from his network, a senior TV channel executive, who bad-mouths brands left and right. “As a professional, one has to be careful when criticising people, organisations or brands. You may need their business tomorrow.”


Mr Kant doesn’t write on anything that may get him into trouble; preferring to remain with topics like his travels, macro-economic issues and the occasional book or malt that captures his imagination. And like any proud parent, he cannot resist the occasional FB pic of his daughter’s graduation fromOxford. But apart from his busy Facebook page, he is quite selective about the people he chooses to add to his networks. Mr Iyer of Kimberly Clark Lever says that it’s important to come out of the shadow of the company you represent and present your human voice.


“Anand Mahindra isn’t out there to sell one more car. It’s about listening to others and learning from them.” Being offensive or shallow is a lesser crime compared to being boring, feels Ms Paul, who advises people to stay away from social media unless they have a content pipeline. While you may have a lot to share, it all depends on how you weave it in your conversations. The good news is top executives seem to be getting it. As social media catches on, few can resist its lure. As Paul said: “Every time I log in, it’s a party out there.”


Source: The Economic Times

Copyright © 2012, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved


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