Only 18 percent of CEOs use social media—but why?

The big boys and girls still aren’t playing on the online playground, a Weber Shandwick report says, but the reasons for their reluctance remain murky.

Social networking, when done well, can be an extremely powerful marketing and sales tool for businesses of any size. It can put a human face on a company. It can establish thought leadership. It can be a great way to understand and serve the interests of your customers (and potential customers).

That’s why a recent report from Weber Shandwick, the global public relations firm, was so stunning. The Weber Shandwick team looked into the social media activities of the CEOs from the top 50 companies listed in the Fortune Global 500 rankings, measuring everything from participation in social networks to inclusion of the CEO on the company website.

Their report, Socializing Your CEO II, included key findings, including the fact that only 18 percent of the CEOs studied participated on social networks and not one of them had a company-affiliated blog.

Among their other findings:

  • 40 percent of the CEOs appear in video (either scripted or at an annual meeting)
  • 34 percent of the CEOs have a presence on company home pages and About Us pages
  • “Tenured” CEOs (in office for more than three years) are significantly more likely to participate in social media than those with less than three years in the position (79 percent versus 48 percent)

Percentagewise, the biggest growth could be found in participation on social networks (which tripled since 2010) and video, which jumped to 40 percent participation in 2012, as opposed to only 18 percent in 2010.

Of note: 81 percent of the CEOs at the top of Fortune’s Most Admired Companies rankings engage through company websites or in social media, as opposed to just 50 percent of what the study called “contender firms.”

What does this study really tell us?

The obvious conclusion is that the highest level CEOs in the world have been reluctant to fully embrace social media. But the real question is “why?”

Let’s look at a few theories:

1. When you are the CEO of one of the biggest corporations in the world you don’t have the time to actively participate in social media. I’m not really buying this one. If the company has a strong head of communications, that individual should be making sure the CEO is actively involved. It doesn’t mean that the CEO will be doing all of his/her own Tweeting or blogging, but will be involved enough to make sure that key corporate messages are being delivered.

2. Most CEOs of huge companies are too old to understand the value of participating in social media.

Once again, I’m not buying it. If you are smart and powerful enough to have attained the position of CEO in a multinational company, you should be sufficiently informed to understand just how important social media is in the world of business today.

3. CEOs are typically terrified of screwing up.

This one makes a bit more sense. When you dabble in social media or do a half-assed job, it puts you and your company in a bad light. Even worse, a major gaffe on social media can go viral and create a full-blown crisis. Although this argument makes sense, what doesn’t make sense is to stay out of social media just because you’re afraid of messing up. That’s why your communications head has such a crucial role.

4. Big corporations are notorious for taking forever to adopt new technologies and ways of doing business.

Though it’s true that big companies are not built for nimble decision-making, social media is not only here to stay, it is evolving and growing daily. Companies that fail to fully embrace the new way of doing business are the ones that are doomed to fail.

Plenty of big companies have recognized the power of social media and have used it to gain a competitive edge. Sadly, there are so many more that have caused themselves serious harm by remaining on the social media sidelines.

Jon Gelberg is the founder Gelberg Communications. Follow him on Twitter @ Jon_Gelberg. A version of this article first appeared on Muck Rack, a network where journalists and PR professionals connect using social media. (Image via)

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