Elon Musk's troublesome tweets shouldn't stop other CEOs from using social

PR pros and clients still want CEOs on social, despite other execs' pitfalls.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Risks can outweigh benefits when a company head is chatty on social, as evidenced most recently with an errant tweet by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. But PR pros don’t anticipate a slowdown in CEOs joining social media.

In fact, they wish the C-suite would be less aloof, and use social media to more frequently interact with users and speak out on important issues.

"Our viewpoint is not enough executives are on social, so we’re constantly talking to our clients about the virtues of being on social," says Mike Cearley, global MD of social and innovation at FleishmanHillard. "There’s this demand for transparency for so many cultural and societal issues that employees – forget about the public – want to know where their company stands."

However, Musk caused trouble when he posted a tweet saying he secured funding to take the company private, an unexpected announcement that attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchanges Commission.

Now, the regulatory body is probing whether Musk violated securities laws by spreading false information. Since then, the proposal has been shelved, and the carmaker has parted ways with Sarah O’Brien, its communications head.

No one at the company has been able to put guardrails around Musk, much to the dismay of Tesla board members, according to The New York Times.

Despite that, MSLGroup clients remain bullish on the value social media can create for their brands when used by CEOs, says Archie Smart, U.S. digital lead.

"Over the next five years, we will see more leaders wanting to directly engage," Smart says.

Smart cited several CEOs that leverage their platforms responsibly in service of their respective companies’ brands, including T-Mobile’s John Legere, General Motors’ Mary Barra, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. He says they demonstrate that it’s possible for a CEO to be both transparent and aboveboard.

"We deal with clients [where] social is not native to them," Cearley says. "Very few times do we have to take the phone away from them. We treat it like any other media training - developing guidelines, sitting with them or their team, and planning for different scenarios as much as we can."

He adds that it is rare for a CEO to want to be a "superstar." The chief executives of the brands Cearley works with prefer to be "thoughtful" about their social media posts because of the spotlight.

Some CEOs use their personal platform but have largely inactive profiles – they’re simply there to have a presence and to listen. Others use social media to disseminate content yet remain moderate in their engagement, says Cearley.

Some CEOs, however, engage in one-on-one conversations with everyday people – sometimes taking to the platform too naturally, say experts. Smart says he’s had to convince his clients to put down their phones.

"That can be tough," he says. "These CEOs often run very large multinational corps and I think it’s tough to say no. They’d love to create a platform, but they will need help from their professional communicators."

Ideally, the team running the account would be in a position to monitor media and social media, and to react quickly, Smart says.

Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick, says it can be tough to take on clients with seemingly no filter.

"Communications today is a discipline that needs to be adhered to," Gaines-Ross says. "It’s like any kind of function in any organization. There needs to be a science and discipline."

When it comes to weaning a CEO off Twitter, Gaines-Ross says PR pros need to return to a common refrain in marketing and communications: show them the data. Gaines-Ross said this could include the effect on share price, the number of followers, the number of responses, and how that CEO’s use of social media compares to competitors.

"If you feel the CEO is using social media incorrectly, you should be forthright about that," she says. "The comms job isn’t to put a rubber stamp on everything, or a job for ‘yes people.’ You need to show impact on corporate reputation. You need to show them the data and analytics. And if that doesn’t work, everyone needs to make a decision about where they want to be in 12 months."

Earlier this month, Jim Olson, the former top comms boss at United Continental Holdings, spoke with PRWeek about best practices for social media when he joined Steward Health Care as comms head.

"As issues pop up, you may think about speaking out, whether through tweeting or making public statements," Olson says. "Mission and values should always be the filter that those go through."

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