Social Media for the C-Suite: Avoid Saying Stupid Things

Every time you turn around, it seems someone is saying something stupid on social media. And because of that, you might be wary of jumping into the conversation yourself. But before you decide to stay on the sidelines, hear me out.

You’re probably no Pax Dickinson. But you likely can learn from his mistakes.

Dickinson (until last week) was the chief technical officer at Business Insider, an online publication known for its social media savvy. But he was apparently lacking in an extremely important aspect of social savvy—knowing when to hold back.

This tweet, posted in the wake of a series of controversial presentations at a tech conference, got Dickinson in trouble:

On its own, tweeting that probably wasn’t the best of choices. But the real problem was that it was only the tip of the iceberg. And in its wake, the rest of the iceberg melted, flooding the internet with evidence revealing that a C-level executive for a multimillion-dollar company had been firing off the kind of individual tweets that would get someone fired—except in batches of 50. They’re so bad that we can’t print them here.

Dickinson understandably was forced to resign (though he’s tried to defend himself), but the incident raised major questions about how executives should handle themselves on social media—with one glaringly obvious answer: Not. Like. That.

What you say online matters. Your personal ponderings are probably worth pondering about, but you have to take care to not let those get in the way of your day job.

To put it another way, all social media is public relations, whether you want it to be or not.

But since when was using your head not a requirement of the job?

So Why Bother?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a lengthy argument about why you shouldn’t hand your social feeds over to robots. But every rule has an exception, and that exception’s name is Paul Krugman.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist turned columnist and blogger for The New York Times (who also occasionally moonlights in Jonah Hill movies) recently pointed out that he hit more than a million followers on his Twitter account using a robot that simply grabs his latest blog posts. (And he blogs frequently about complex economics topics; he’s no Luddite.) He has the kind of engagement around his content that people and organizations collectively spend millions of dollars trying to create for themselves, and he doesn’t do anything to encourage it. Why doesn’t he tweet himself?

“One reason is that I have better things to do with my time,” he recently wrote. “Another is that I don’t think my instant reactions to things are especially interesting. But I have to admit that I’ve also been aware for some time how many people end up destroying themselves by tweeting something really offensive.”

There are a bunch of reasons this stance might be appealing to many execs. (For one thing, a lot of CEOs avoid social media entirely.) Leaders of a certain stripe find that everything they say and do will be analyzed heavily. And Krugman’s right—it does in fact take time. But the potential upside could be huge—being a prominent voice within reach could enhance your brand and show members that your organization’s leadership is listening.

Every time a Pax Dickinson-type incident surfaces, so does another reason to wall off the C-suite to keep its inhabitants safe from the kind of criticizable actions unbefitting a top executive.

But since when was using your head not a requirement of the job?

Find a Balance

Note to the C-suite: There’s room to be careful without giving up on social entirely.

If you think your organization could put itself in danger of seriously screwing up on social media, don’t just allow the screw-ups to happen. Like anything else related to public relations, you need to have a strategy. Give employees—both the ones in the C-suite and those at lower levels—a smart social media policy with usable guidelines that don’t put people in a box but encourage them to use their heads.

There are many examples of such policies in action in the corporate sphere, but one particularly well-done one is NPR’s, which goes into significant depth about such conduct in the eyes of its reporters and public figures. Obviously, there are only so many lessons that translate from a news outlet to a membership organization (though, since they’re on the front lines more than most, they’re a great example). But that said, even if you’re not a journalist, your organization probably can get behind this point: “Don’t behave any differently online than you would in any other public setting.”

And if you need a good starting point, the online strategy company Rtraction has created a handy tool for creating a social media policy—although you’ll probably want to talk over using it with your board beforehand.

My colleague Rob Stott has written a couple of articles on this topic in the past year, including one piece about how you shouldn’t react on social media as well as another about how to avoid running into controversies on social media.

But be mindful of the rules—in an October 2012 piece for Associations Now, attorney Mark E. Truesdell pointed out that federal law does create some limitations on what rules your policy can include.

In the end, what Pax Dickinson did is as much the exception as Paul Krugman is on the other end of the spectrum.

But maybe it’s the exceptions that help you set better rules.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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