Corporate social media and coronavirus – should your CEO be on Instagram?

In this era of global social distancing, an active CEO presence on social media is increasingly valuable. Jonathan Holt shares lessons and best practice for company leaders in the current crisis, and which also hold true for calmer times.

As Bernard Looney prepared to take the helm at BP, way back in January, one way he signaled a new style of leadership was by launching a new @bernardlooney_bp Instagram account – an unconventional move for an oil and gas sector CEO to be sure.

In the first post (a relaxed portrait in jeans and a V-neck jumper), Mr Looney laid out his intention to use Instagram ‘not just as a platform to talk but also to listen and understand your thoughts, concerns and interests.’

No one could have predicted quite how much the world would change in the weeks that have followed. But the CEO Instagram feed – there may be more of them out there than you think – has arguably only increased in value, in terms of offering one way for leaders to stay visible while face-to-face contact and jetting around the world for meetings is no longer the done thing.

In most companies, human resources were the first to experiment with Instagram, seeing it as a way to reach younger jobseekers. But over the last couple of years we have noticed Instagram beginning to take its place alongside Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook in the pantheon of core corporate social media presences. As it turns out, jobseekers are not the only group who like to be served up pictures with little stories attached to them. For many companies, lots of employees are on the platform too, and that makes this a potentially good match for a CEO who is looking to extend her or his reach digitally, as the company’s leading spokesperson and cheerleader.

If you are considering setting your own CEO up with an Instagram account, here are some thoughts on what to consider:

Be human and authentic

At its root, an Instagram account is a visual diary, and that makes this a good place to convey the CEO’s ‘human’ side. Some of the weaker accounts we have seen focus on more conventional PR style material, such as professional-grade portraits from major events and screen grabs from TV appearances. In many locations, that kind of imagery is suddenly in short supply, thanks to Covid-19, and this is necessitating a more creative – and often more authentic – approach.

The evolution of Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon’s Instagram feed in recent weeks is a case in point, where the camera now often points away from Mr Solomon’s face but still manages to tell us quite a lot about his world.

Also note how Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg’s Instagram account has been posting more candid glimpses of his day-to-day work and life during the crisis. And how @bernardloony_bp has been posting grittier and more authentic pictures lately, in keeping with the times.

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Spotlighting others’ work and lives is another way to introduce a ‘human’ element. The light, accessible format of Instagram makes this channel particularly good as a forum for celebrating employee successes and stories, so it is no surprise to see employees’ faces popping up on CEOs’ Instagram feeds more and more. As the number of followers increases, this bit of public exposure could become more coveted than any internal award or trophy in many companies.

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Vary the visuals

On Instagram, nothing propels ‘likes’ and comments quite like an intriguing image, but most important is that each post be wholly appropriate to the moment. Stylistic variety is vital. Too many of any one type of image and the engagement could drop off. An exception that proves the rule is Allergan CEO Brent Saunders’ Instagram feed, which before the Covid-19 crisis built up nearly half a million followers on the channel by offering a steady flow of smiling self-portraits – but which has since gone largely quiet amid the pandemic.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, an early adopter of Instagram, uses his social media presences mainly as a vehicle to speak directly to Walmart employees. At key moments, whether after a tragic shooting at a Walmart store or at key points in this current crisis, words supersede photography, even in select Instagram posts. The effect is striking and effective, mainly because it is used so sparingly.

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Incidentally, in all of his recent Instagram posts, Mr McMillon has been careful to be pictured wearing a face mask, even in images that have nothing explicitly to do with Covid-19. As everyone knows, images speak louder than words, and at a time when Walmart employees across the US have been told to wear face masks at work, seeing the CEO doing the same carries import.

Keep it plausible

Modern-day CEOs rarely issue any written communication without help, and rightly so – they are busy people whose every word can influence the share price. Interestingly, Mr Looney’s social media accounts are explicit about this, noting, ‘for transparency’, that ‘a team at BP help me with this account’. This is an approach that other CEOs would likely be wise to emulate.

But regardless, the most persuasive CEO-level accounts will be those that reflect the individual leader’s authentic viewpoint and voice in every post. Long, carefully scripted narratives signed by the CEO have their place in the annual report but can seem suspiciously lengthy and overly slick next to an Instagram selfie. Also, some of the CEO profiles we looked at were cluttered with re-posted corporate communications that would be better left on the main corporate channels. Too many of them can water down the impact.

Posting corporate information on the CEO social media channels only really works if the words that accompany it read like a personal note. An example is the recent series of 30 videos of Walmart employees that were posted to Mr McMillon’s feed, each carrying a personal note from the CEO, and thus justifying the use of his own Instagram feed rather than the corporate one.

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Cultivate multiple channels

There appears to be little danger of Instagram replacing LinkedIn anytime soon as the default choice for CEOs looking to get on to social media. The numbers say it all. Virgin CEO Richard Branson may have 4.4 million followers on Instagram, but he has over 17 million on LinkedIn.

But Instagram and Facebook continue to emerge as viable, softer alternatives for senior leaders who want to extend their reach into social media without being forced to speak in pithy (or indeed carefully bland) statements day after day, on Twitter.

Using a mix of channels is often best, and the trick, as ever with social media, is in tailoring the information by channel, according to what works in that context.

As things have turned out, Bernard Looney’s Instagram feed has not been home to much in the way of constructive dialogue so far, perhaps because most of the incoming comments have been light and positive (coming mostly from employees and alumni, it appears). But there is noteworthy engagement happening on Mr Looney’s LinkedIn profile, where many of the comments – often by industry professionals – receive a personal reply, even when they are negative. And that is rare indeed.

All of which highlights the fact that even if you are the CEO of a large company, you are never wholly in control of what takes flight and what doesn’t on social media. It is more about being limber and responsive in recognising what works and then doing your best to cultivate it.

- Jonathan Holt

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First published 29 April, 2020
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