Leaders can’t let fear of cancel culture stop them from being social

·4 min read

Few things can crush a career faster than one stupid or mean tweet. 

Just ask the fashion executive who pitched his spring collection by citing violent political protests, or the communications chief who wisecracked about AIDS, or the CFO who promoted unreleased company financial information on his personal Twitter and Facebook.

It takes a lifetime to build a successful career, but modern cancel culture needs only 10 seconds to destroy it. 

No doubt some bad social media posts are bigoted and wrong. In other cases, even the smallest mistake or iffy tone can turn a business leader into the target of an angry online mob. Let’s face it—executives are inviting prey. People are looking for that gotcha moment because executives have successful careers, significant wealth, and media attention.

As these cautionary tales of cancel culture pile up, it’s easy for executives to write off social media completely. But here’s the rub: The evidence shows it pays to engage.

A recent study by leading global communication agency Ruder Finn shows that companies with top-performing CEOs could draw a direct line between their success and how effective those executives were at using social media. Top social CEOs also were far more likely to have their companies earn a spot on Glassdoor’s 100 Best Places to Work. 

A Weber Shandwick survey of 1,700 C-suite executives found that managers believe the CEO’s reputation is responsible for 45% of their company’s reputation and 44% of the company’s market value. Nearly nine out of 10 managers said a positive CEO reputation enticed investors.

Steady and engaging 

The reality is that if top executives are not social selling, they are missing opportunities that far exceed the dangers. Your absence on social media is killing deals. 

For big numbers of customers, especially younger ones, a modern company is really about the people who lead it. These clients want more than just the company’s products. They want to weigh the values of the company. 

Can I relate to this leader? Can I trust this leader? Do I agree with this leader? The answers to these questions carry more importance than a traditional company motto or logo. 

To be effective, executive social media must be social. It’s about who you are and what you do. Some social media is about work, and some of it is not. This mix of business and nonbusiness fleshes out who you are as a human being.

Contrast that with the typical boring business brand page on social media. It’s all work and no play, a one-way communication railroad that violates the social media promise. The traditional big company brand page does not even try to be social. I wouldn’t go out for a drink or coffee with the big company brand. Given the right approach, however, I might see myself going out for a beer with the CEO of that company.

Too many CEOs believe incorrectly that they must attract millions of social media followers, like Elon Musk or Richard Branson, but engagement is really about connecting with the right people at the right time. 

For example, the CEO selling $500,000 MRI machines doesn’t need thousands of followers. That business leader just needs to reach potential buyers at a few specific U.S. health care systems.

There are brilliant but very technical doctors and engineers who share their knowledge, expertise, and findings with other doctors and engineers on LinkedIn. They’ve got their own little connection circles—an excellent use of social media for business reasons.

There’s a major personal upside of social media for business leaders. While burnishing the company brand, effective executives also shine their own, demonstrating their communication strengths and making themselves more marketable by establishing themselves as leaders in their field. 

CEOs at large companies have the advantage of comms, legal, and outside consultants to help craft their message. Executives should rely on their judgment. No one expects a CEO to be a master at designing the company’s buildings or tax strategy, so why assume the boss is a pro at social media?

For executives at smaller companies without social media experts on staff, there are basic techniques available to keep from running afoul of cancel culture. 

Most important is to assemble a social media feedback team that looks like your country and your customers. The more your team varies in age, gender, and race, the fewer blind spots that would allow you to say something dumb. 

The idea isn’t to become a Titan of Twitter. It’s to demonstrate who you already are: a respected, reasoned authority, someone others can turn to for pioneering thought in your field.

Executive social media doesn’t need to be explosive. It can be steady and engaging. With the right social media presence, an executive builds credibility that eventually translates into familiarity, trust, and sales.

Alen Bubich is the founder and CEO of Social Horse Power

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