When Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson posted his support for Black Lives Matter, he didn't use Marriott's official site. He didn't use the official channels for his video about COVID-19, either. Instead, he used his personal LinkedIn page.
Sorenson is just one of a growing number of CEOs who rely on LinkedIn to manage crises with a personal touch. Mary Barra of General Motors, Alan Jope of Unilever, and Ed Bastian of Delta all have used established LinkedIn audiences to communicate during crises.
Other leaders, like Rod McMullen of Kroger and Gary Kelly of Southwest, have quickly appreciated the value of LinkedIn and stepped up their presence during the lockdown.
Corporate leaders are turning to LinkedIn because of its ease of use, its virality, and the business reach of its audience. According to Ogilvy, it's the most effective and flexible form of communication for CEOs.
It's no surprise LinkedIn has grown in importance. There has been a 26% increase in LinkedIn sessions since Microsoft last announced numbers, before the COVID-19 crisis. Part of that growth is based on renewed networking for people out of work. But a bigger part stems from people looking for answers, and private sector leaders like Sorenson are providing comfort and direction.
Whether it is a pandemic, product safety issue, terrorist attack, shooting or natural disaster crises come up quickly. And they require CEOs to communicate beyond their company's owned audiences.
But why not use your owned media? After all, it's widely believed that you shouldn't build an audience on borrowed land, but build an audience you own. Yes, it is ideal to have a devoted audience reading your emails and visiting your website for news. But a crisis is different.
During the pandemic, we've all seen brands we'd never heard of suddenly remember they had our email addresses and use them to send us highly polished PR statements. And I doubt you remember any of them.
That's because owned channels are limited; they basically involve one-way communication from a single perspective. There is no real-time feedback and no chance of your message going viral. At best, they are friendly echo chambers. You can't afford that in a crisis. If your ideas can't stand the sunlight of social media interaction, will they be valid to a diverse audience?
LinkedIn, like other forms of social media, allows you to gain new insights that help you respond to people's fears, or innovate in ways you hadn't thought of. And it also allows people to dissent in public. By responding to that dissent on LinkedIn, you tell employees and customers that you're aware of their concerns. In turn, they perceive that you are transparent and able to manage the crisis.
For proof, look at Penny Pennington, a managing partner at Edward Jones, who nimbly jumped into a discussion of the racial crisis on the first Saturday night of the Minneapolis protests.
Posting to LinkedIn also builds on an important truth: people trust individuals more than they do companies. They want to hear from the people running those companies which is why posts from CEOs almost always outperform those from their companies.
Sorenson humanized what could have been a staid corporate video by sharing vulnerable details; he said his team was worried about what viewers would think when seeing him bald for the first time after undergoing treatment for cancer.
As a leader, you owe it to your company and your public to speak with urgency and fluency during a crisis. To be silent today is to be complicit. And if you are only talking to the people on your company's email list, the public does not know you are helping.
But in order to lead on LinkedIn, you need rapport and influence. Essentially, you need to build an audience before you need it. Sorenson has 771,000 followers on LinkedIn, and 1.28 million views of his COVID-19 video. He didn't build that overnight.
So start banking some goodwill with the public on LinkedIn now. Build your audience and your day-to-day visibility by being human, approachable, empathetic and present. Help us know and appreciate your expertise through consistent posts, articles and commentary on industry news.
By building your LinkedIn chops now, your posts won't look like self-serving PR moves when you really need them, because we'll already know, like and trust you.
Betsy Hindman is the founder of Hindman Company, a digital B2B consulting and marketing firm.