Why big time CEOs are tweeting up a storm

In August 2008 Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported 18 CEOs on Twitter. One year later, it put the number at 50 and now it appears it is no longer counting. Chief executives around the world have picked up on the value of Twitter for business, and also for bringing a human touch to the title of CEO just as they are being cast as Hollywood villains and targets for #Occupation. In emerging markets like South Africa, the numbers of tweeting CEOs are still small, but growing, and most of those who are taking the time to tweet see no turning back.

Beyond the boardroom and the corner office, there has been a collision of forces, its impact still to be felt for years to come. That is, not least, a global downturn, coupled with popular uprisings in the Arab world. Throw in the spread of smart technologies and the proliferation of social media and you have a new world order. No one knows who to blame but the implications are widespread. Among them is an increased appetite for news, a new kind of consumer — whose expectations are that companies be responsive to their needs — and the idea that critical information no longer keeps office hours.

It’s a challenging environment for captains of industry — but one that also presents previously unheard-of opportunities to speak to customers, to gauge popular sentiment, to share information and to gather market intelligence. If your product’s poor, your service is crap or the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes you know you’ll hear about it first on Twitter.

Asked why he tweets, Richard Branson told BusinessWeek “I’m regularly asked what a day in the life of Richard Branson looks like, and Twitter helps me answer that.” With more than 1.5-million followers, the man is a global business rock star. And in case you are wondering, he also recently told followers “Yes i do my tweets personally. Don’t see much point otherwise.”

In South Africa, Massmart’s CEO, Grant Pattison is on Twitter, and so is Vodacom Group CEO Pieter Uys. Relative Twitter newbie, Gidon Novick, (soon to be former) joint CEO of Comair (the holding company for Kulula and British Airways) publicly caved, saying: “Okay, Michael Jordaan has set the standard, time to start tweeting. About what, I’m still not sure…”

Jordaan, CEO of First National Bank (FNB), is one of the country’s corporate tweeting pioneers. He has also brought the bank along with him and the strength of his and FNB’s social media profile owes much to these combined efforts. The vision for the bank is clearly communicated through all of its channels.

Jordaan says he joined the social network out of curiosity. “The first time I heard about Twitter was at one of our press launches, where journalists were told that they were welcome to tweet, and the launch even had a Twitter handle. It sounded a bit silly, but prompted me to try it out. I really liked the fact that the messages are so short.”

He says: “FNB has a very empowering culture, which appeals to entrepreneurs and innovators. Our social media presence, like our other innovations, is not so much the result of a formal strategy, than a consequence of empowered individuals playing around with new technology.”

While tweeting didn’t emerge from a company directive there is no doubt that much thought and planning goes into its use.

FNB is famous on Twitter because of the “RB Jacobs” persona — a 24/7 reputation manager who will go to any lengths to assist a customer in distress. While RB Jacobs is a composite character, Jordaan is proud of doing his tweeting for himself. Recently, he commented on Twitter in response to this question: “RT @theowinter How do we know @MichaelJordaan is not a persona like @RBJacobs? ;-)”, with “From my bad driving while tweeting” .

More seriously though, Jordaan prides himself on authenticity. Asked whether CEOs should have a “tweetee” (someone who tweets on your behalf), he responds: “They just don’t get it. It’s like outsourcing your own personality. And you can’t fool all of the people all the time.” Take note Durex!

On Twitter, he describes himself as a “banker, economist and wine enthusiast”. He has more than 5 000 followers, but follows only 45 — mostly journalists, with a sprinkling of other CEOs, and wine commentators.

“Actually, I do not tweet as CEO (that would be way too boring) but just as myself. I love my job and am also passionate about economics, world affairs and wine. So, I try to confine myself to my spheres of interest. If I had to advise other CEOs, it would simply be that they should be themselves. Role playing is for actors.”

Paul Theron, CEO of Vestact Asset Management and host of Mad Markets on CNBC Africa, is another tweeter. He points out that Jordaan’s profile is popular because “he doesn’t just respond to messages sent to him, he follows FNB customers and also has a great sense of humour, extending the corporate brand”.

Theron considers Twitter vital to his work. “Running an asset management company, it’s a fabulous tool for staying up to date with market developments. Before Twitter, I would go straight to The Wall Street Journal site, for example. Now I don’t go to websites, unless I am following a link that has been recommended.” He adds that “on Twitter, you get value and you give value” by sharing information.

As Longevity magazine owner and publisher Gisele Wertheim Aymes pointed out recently: “Twitter is every [person’s] Reuters.” It’s news curation by people who share similar interests, but who have diverse influences.

Theron says “getting into a nice network” is critical to being successful on Twitter. This requires careful choices about who to follow. Looking at someone’s Twitter feed “constitutes an amazing referral about a person… You put yourself out there.” Theron says he follows two or three new people each day while “unfollowing” others who don’t add value.

Personal tweeting style can be a deal-breaker. For some, it’s swearing that puts them off. For others, it’s the incongruity between the Twitter persona and the person they know — like the shy guy who can’t muster more than a muffled hello, but on Twitter is the life and smutty soul of the party. Then there is the multi-talented multitasker, who tweets their every new hobby conquest, and the type who name and place-name drop at the slightest opportunity. “Standing in a queue with Michael Jordaan and Michael Jordan as we board flight to Paris. First-class check-in not working. Shame on you @airline.”

Trevor Ncube, proprietor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian and NewsDay, and The Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard in Zimbabwe, also has more than 5 000 followers, and he follows more than 800. On questions of style, he admits: “When I think of my first few tweets, I feel embarrassed. I was learning how to use the platform. I tended to be minutely personal.” He mentions, ahem, a “prostate check-up” that he tweeted. “That was early days. The more you understand the ecosystem, [the more you realise] it’s an amazing platform.”

Ncube encourages the use of twitter “because I have seen the business value; people post links that I would not ordinarily have read. It expands your horizons.”

He mentions that when he first started in the media industry 22 years ago, interaction was limited. “There was the letter to the editor and it usually arrived late, if the reader got to respond at all. But our relationships have changed. I need to be alert to what the market is saying. With Twitter, I am hooked into what my readers are saying.”

So much so that in the week we spoke, he had been alerted by a reader that his Zimbabwean newspaper website had been hacked. “Our response time would have been a lot slower if I hadn’t have heard it from that reader,” he says. Being on Twitter for Ncube means “not being left out of the conversation”, he explains. “I want to be informed.”

The implication of not being left out of the conversation is a point picked up by Jordaan. “I completely underestimated the conversation that is happening “out there” and how brands are discussed, ridiculed or praised in social media. Now I get immediate feedback if things are going right (or wrong) in FNB, long before our formal systems tell me about aspects such our customer service metrics or system availability. Also, by making myself accessible, we are really able to live our brand promise of helpfulness.”

And its impact on staff perception within the organisation? “Technology has broken down so many hierarchies that used to exist in our organisational structure. Twitter is just more evidence that the world is getting smaller.”

If the views of tweeting chief executives are anything to go by, one could almost be forgiven for thinking the real twits are ones who don’t.

Image: eldh



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Memeburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.