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Why Social Media is a Leadership Must

May 2014

Excerpted from The Rise of Social Media.

For businesses, social media represents both opportunity and risk. On one hand, social media provides brands with an intimate platform to connect with customers and shape their perceptions, whether through timely and targeted promotions, responsive customer service or the creation of communities of interest. On the other, social media has unquestionably shifted power to the individual, who can tarnish long-established brands with a single angry blog post or quickly coalesce vast numbers of people behind a cause. Organizations’ successes, failures and missteps are now on display as never before.

While most consumer-facing companies have acknowledged this shift and begun to adapt their organizations in response — for example, embracing social media as a key platform for advertising and corporate communications — no business can afford to be complacent. Consider that a study by eMarketer forecasts that the global social network audience will reach 2.55 billion people by 2017, or more than a third of the world’s population.1 

Social networks will continue to change the way people act and make decisions, and business leaders need to determine how their companies should respond. To engage effectively in social media platforms, businesses must do the following:

Understand what the organization already is communicating through social channels. A comprehensive social media audit can identify how much employees are already talking about the business in public forums, the windows these interactions are providing into the company and the impression customers are getting as a result. Organizations also should consider the view from the inside out. How are customers, employees and retirees getting information about the business? What channels are they using to contact the company, and which social media communities influence them? How much time do they spend in those communities or on social media in general?

Find out what key stakeholders are saying about the company. By tracking the core discussions about the company on the leading social networks and employing reliable sentiment analysis tools, organizations can gain a real-time view into what consumers and other stakeholders are saying and how they feel about the company.

Define responsibilities for social media within the organization. At some point along the way, companies must determine who is responsible for social media strategy and the execution of that strategy.

Implications for leaders

Regardless of who has ultimate responsibility for social media planning and day-to-day execution, leaders across business functions and units will have to be savvy about social media, understanding how to exploit the opportunities that specific platforms provide and to monitor the risks related to increased transparency. Leaders will need to understand what resonates with their customers and employees and be willing to devote time and energy to the task. Many executives start out tweeting or blogging with a passion, only to find they have less time, or less to say, than they had imagined.

Executives must be willing to dive into social media Executives can seek out mini-courses about social media that may be offered by their own companies or by their company’s marketing partners. Another approach is to find young people in the organization or in the family who can provide training in important and interesting platforms.

Executives not only need to be knowledgeable about social media channels, but increasingly they will need to possess a set of skills that allows them to navigate today’s fast-changing, communications-oriented environment. These include:

  • Agility in interacting with a wider range of constituencies than in the past. Leaders who do this well are able to accurately identify the issues and perspectives that are central to multiple audiences and apply them in decision making.
  • Communications skills. Organizations and leaders will have to excel at listening and ensure that communications are relevant and responsive.
  • Comfort with ambiguity. Gone are the days when organizations controlled the information and messages about themselves. The social media landscape is dynamic and fast-changing, and leaders will have to be comfortable operating in an environment in which they have little control and frequently don’t have all the information.
  • Strong business judgment in evaluating opportunities and risks. Leaders must be able to frame problems accurately, evaluate ambiguous information, tease out areas of priority and anticipate the potential consequences.
  • Willingness to take risks and get out of their comfort zone. Advancements in social media come at a dizzying pace. Executives need to push themselves to participate in these networks and channels to make sure their organizations stay relevant to key constituencies.

1. Based on U.S. Census Bureau projections ( ^

Learn more about how corporations can be better prepared for the broader leadership implications of social media.