A call to arms: socialising Asian CEOs

Business leaders view social media as a source of competitive advantage and are investing significant dollars in social tools to improve internal collaboration, foster innovation and drive customer awareness and loyalty.

Yet CEOs have been reluctant to adopt social media as a communications vehicle. While evidence suggests that regional executives of western firms appear more willing to expose themselves online, most leaders of Asia-based firms opt to remain in the social shadows.


Social exception in Asia: Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son & friends
Photo credit: Danny Choo

Why are Asian leaders so reluctant to open up?

For one, Asian CEOs tend to be more circumspect and less open than their western peers. Discretion and privacy are paramount. The Jack Welsh-style cult does not loom large in these parts.

The close-knit world of family firms and state-owned enterprises, with CEOs focusing on a narrow range of key corporate stakeholders, notably investors and government, must also be borne in mind. Conducting relationships face-to-face continues – and very likely will continue – to be the preferred modus operandi.

Equally, the emphasis on consensual decision-making by committee, especially in North Asia, means Asia’s corporate leaders tend to be more risk-averse, have less room for manoeuvre and hence are less willing to be seen publicly to be leading from the front.

Last but not least is a perceived lack of time and, in many cases, a poverty of skilled support. Do I have to write it all myself? And if I don’t, what are the dangers of not being seen as ‘authentic’? Should everything be posted in my name, and does that mean I am legally accountable? How to respond to all the comments? Should we respond to negative feedback and, if so, which ones?

What will it take to get Asia’s corporate leaders to adopt a more open leadership style?

First, CEOs need to understand how and why their key stakeholders use social media, and its role in the broader decision-making process. While research shows that CEOs in consumer industries are twice as likely to engage online audiences as their B2B counterparts, social media are the preferred news and research tool for many journalists, NGOs, employees and other stakeholders, in both their professional and personal capacities. Gen Y-ers of all types use little else.

And while expansion into foreign markets and the need to build relationships with a greater range of stakeholders in a more transparent manner can prove a social tipping point, the need to connect with a broader range of stakeholders domestically is becoming stronger in many Asian markets as civil society evolves.

Whatever the trigger, corporate leaders in Asia using Twitter, Weibo or Facebook need to weigh carefully the business and reputational risks and rewards. Above all, they should have a clear idea of what they are looking to achieve.

CEOs can use social media to:

  • Increase interest & buzz. Lei Jun, billionaire founder of upstart Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi (and increasingly talked of as China’s Steve Jobs), proactively uses Weibo to drum up interest and buzz in his firm’s phones, latest promotions and discounts to some 4m+ followers. This is part of a broader marketing strategy that eschews traditional advertising in favour of selling phones online and direct through the micro-blog platform.
  • Build profile & image. Social media can help increase the visibility of both a company and its leadership, both amongst customers but also niche stakeholder groups. Masayoshi Son, CEO of Japanese telecoms and Internet firm Softbank, deploys Twitter to highlight company news, products and activities to his 1.8 million followers. Talking about his private life and sharing his views on politics and technology has also helped soften a reputation for autocracy.
  • Establish trust. While most leaders – indeed, most companies – employ Twitter, Facebook and YouTube primarily to ‘push’ news and information, social media is most powerful when holding discussions and soliciting feedback and ideas.  Being seen to engage openly and listen with a range of different audiences will help nurture trust, a useful attribute in any situation, not least during a crisis.
  • Drive change. Successful organisational transformation requires much more than management informing employees how to think and what to do – they need to feel involved and believe they have a real stake in the process. Former HCL Technologies CEO Vineet Nayar, who transformed an also-ran Indian IT services firm into a global powerhouse, is one of many company leaders who have used social media internally as a key tool to steer change, communicating openly with staff throughout the process.
  • Correct misinformation: Elon Musk’s recent tangle with the New York Times over a damaging review of his firm’s Tesla Model S electric car shows social media can be a powerful tool for correcting misleading or inaccurate stories in the mainstream media and elsewhere. In a world in which rumours can circulate the globe in minutes, having an authoritative online voice is not simply advisable, it is necessary.
  • Activate supporters. As Barack Obama has demonstrated, social media can be a potent tool in recruiting, organizing, motivating and activating supporters.  They are also a useful weapon in crisis response and recovery. Yet examples of corporate leaders using social tools to respond to a crisis or publicly influence policy are few, not least in Asia. An exception is Air Asia’s Tony Fernandes, who regularly uses his blog to make the case to customers and stakeholders on national issues and airline industry regulation.

Having clarified their objectives, CEOs should consider the following 5 key principles for connecting with internal and external stakeholders:

  1. Don’t sell, add valueIt is expected that CEOs talk about their firms’ products and services, news and strategy on social media. But the most successful leaders use social media to talk chiefly about broader industry, technology or societal trends,
    and not necessarily in the form of official corporate “thought leadership”, which often takes a long time to pull together and is only relevant for a finite period. Rather, the more timely, personal and anecdotal a contribution the better.
  2. Be personal, yet professional. Leaders can appear distant and unapproachable. Talking about their interests, passions and hobbies, better still exhibiting their personality and a sense of humour, can help ‘humanise’ a corporate leader and narrow the perception gap. At the same time, corporate leaders are expected to set an example to their people and should be careful to appear professional and to embody their organisational values at all times.
  3. Be candid, yet cautious. Whether they like it or not, business leaders must expect challenging questions and complaints raised through social media; in general, the more open they appear the more they are accepted and trusted. On the flipside, a partial or evasive response may well be publicly dismantled. It is advisable to treat all social media as ‘on the record’ and avoid controversy unless a position can be strongly supported.
  4. Look for the unexpected. For many senior executives, social media smacks mostly of risk, yet it can also bring unexpected opportunities. Having tweeted his outrage at the gang rape in New Delhi, a follower of Mahindra chairman Arnand Mahindra suggested he make freely available an application that tracks a user’s location and sends SOS messages to selected contacts in case of an emergency. Mahindra promptly did so, winning widespread plaudits online and in the mainstream media.
  5. Understand legal parameters. The legal framework governing use of social media remains inconsistent and in many cases poorly enforced, especially around what constitutes fair disclosure. Is a tweet about rising product use considered ‘public’? Might it have a material share price impact? With the SEC starting to bare its teeth on this issue, executives are advised to err on the side of caution.

First published in Public Affairs Asia

1 comment
  1. Elise said:

    Well-noted. Thank you.

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