Is the Social CEO a new age business imperative?

Last week, Baba Ramdev let fly against MNCs saying that his Patanjali Ayurved brand will ‘close the gate in Colgate, make the birds from the Nestle logo disappear and spoil the lever in Unilever (translated from Hindi)’ .I am not going to repeat what he said about Pantene- but you can guess the trend.  You may be excused for thinking that the corporate arena has turned into an animosity ridden, trash talking India –Australia cricket match.

While the topless, bearded Baba may be an extreme and rather silly example of trying to pyche out the competition; the fact is that increasingly the Indian CEO, previously mostly seen and occasionally heard in well controlled CII and WEF seminars or the pages of ET is far more vocal about his opinions today. Social media has crashed the wall between the CEO and their audience.

The early social media stars: Anand Mahindra

While the phenomenon is mostly start-up led, one of the early pioneers of CEOs on social media was Anand Mahindra, chairman and managing director of Mahindra Group. Mahindra strikes a good balance between being available to customers, open and yet mostly sensible about what he says.

Varsha Chainani, senior vice president-group communications, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. points out that, “As companies strive to build trust with their customers, employees and other stakeholders, an open, honest and authentic conversation in traditional media, online and in social media, is becoming the new normal.”

Shonali Burke, president & CEO, Shonali Burke Consulting feels, “It’s a reality of living in a world woven together by the social web. If you want people to pay attention to you, you need to talk to them... and be willing to listen.”

Sheetal Singh head, external communication for Micromax  and YU Televentures, “The Social CEO is a new age imperative. Businesses that are future thinking are embracing social conversations and these conversations are sometimes led by the CEOs, as they are the poster boys and girls for the brand and sometimes they get involved in the conversation. Consumers want to know the view point of leaders on many things and they want it instantly.”

Is the vocal CEO a new business trend?

Recently, the CEOs of Flipkart and Snapdeal clashed over the reported entry of Alibaba into the Indian market. Flipkart founder Sachin Bansal, commented on Alibaba’s plans to enter India with a bit of a pot shot at Snapdeal: 

It’s rare to see corporate CEOs sparring in public, but it’s something Flipkart and Snapdeal heads do quite often.

Amit Gundh, head - digital & social media strategy, Ruder Finn Asia says, “The phenomenon on social media is more skewed towards start-ups that are led by young executives who are attempting at reinventing the rules of business and business communication, although such verbal duels between competitors have been witnessed in print media too. “

Amit Gundh: “Be it start-ups or old economy businesses, taking such conflicts to social media is really about the person behind the brand.”

Shonali warns that initially being brash may be, “The type of personality that gets attention. At some point, though, "brash" gets old, though "blunt" usually stays refreshing... and these CEOs grow up.”

How should PR professionals handle their socially active CEO?

Senior corporate communications leads such as Varsha believe that, “While this trend of being more transparent online may have been highlighted within the start-up community, it is rapidly spreading through the entire corporate sector in India.”

Sheetal, who heads PR at Micromax believes that, “it’s a need for the businesses that their CEOs are social but it is not the need for the businesses that every CEO is blunt or lock horns. Like any other business situation that requires the CEO to lead from the front, social conversations may require the same involvement but you need to choose which situations to pick up.” 

So how should PR professionals play it? While there are clearly things you can and cannot say on social media whoever you are, Senjam Raj Shekhar, head of corporate communications, Flipkart feels that in a situation where the CEO is empowered enough to speak on his own, PR professionals can only be a largely advisory presence.

Speaking at PRmoment India seminar in April, Raj said that, “It’s OK to have a fight or banter on Twitter”, as it makes the CEO more human.

Raj believes PR should only come in when there is a real impact on business.

Amit concurs that, “While a lot of corporate communications teams and consultants are yet get used to it, and may want to have editorial rights over all content that goes out from brand spokespersons, we must accept that businesses are run by humans and such verbal conflicts are natural. And social media offers exactly that – an honest, direct vent to the people behind brands. Of course, the person putting out blunt or brash words into social media would also have to be prepared to face the reaction from not only the opponents, but also the audience – positive or negative.”

Varsha advises that, “CEOs should be mindful that any spin or ‘corporate speak’ doesn’t really help their cause and is quickly dismissed.”

Udit Pathak, co-founder and MD of Media Mantra points out that, “ Constant communication with prospects can lead to improved brand perception on a larger scale and open multiple avenues in business. Understanding this remarkable advantage, CEO’s from diverse industries are adopting the social route to touch- base, interact and connect with prospects in a speedy fashion.”

Adds Amit, “Smart PR teams can really use this to their benefit instead of opposing or censoring it. Backed with real figures and positive performance, such bullish statements on social media can actually reflect confidence of the leadership. Hollow statements, or remarks in poor taste that lack any substance can on the other hand dent the reputation of the person making at as well as of the brand he or she represents. Actions speak louder than words - we must not forget.”

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