Powerful people don’t need social media—so why do they use it?
O now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruin'd band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,
Let him cry 'Praise and glory on his head!'
For forth he goes and visits all his host.
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.
In this excerpt from Shakespeare's Henry V, King Henry disguises himself as a commoner to walk among his soldiers on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. He does so to learn the unvarnished truth about their morale and preparedness, knowing that if he were to tour the camp as king, the information he’d receive would be quite different.
Access is always accompanied by risk. When powerful people make themselves more accessible via social media, they risk losing privacy, focus, efficiency, and even likability.
So why do they do it?
As it turns out, there are three main reasons powerful people weather the risks of accessibility.
1. Escaping the echo chamber
The truth is valuable, but it often doesn’t reach the corner office. Information is filtered through several layers of career-minded subordinates and corporate groupthink. And passing through these layers takes time, degrading the usefulness of the information. As I write in my book:
The higher someone’s status, the more other people say what they think the person wants to hear. When reality finally pierces the wall of optimism and flattery, it’s often too late—this powerful individual has simply made too many decisions based on false premises to right the ship.
Information from social media acts as a counterweight to the polished and presentable information powerful people receive from their teams.
2. The “direct line”
Social media gives powerful people direct, instantaneous access to the masses. No airtime or ad space to buy. No press conference to arrange. This makes PR staffers and in-house lawyers cringe, but the allure of a direct line is too strong for many elites to ignore. This access can be used to promote products, events, and causes (Richard Branson is a great example of the latter), shape public opinion and perception, and defend when attacked. Take, for example, this tweet from Rupert Murdoch, which addressed the News Corp phone hacking scandal and received 30 retweets:
@ rathacat. Family agony awful, but caused by deleting voicemail and raising hope. NOTW wrongly accused of this by Guardian who corrected.
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) June 2, 2012
Many of Murdoch’s tweets could be easily dismissed as nothing more than rants. But what I find remarkable about them—rants or not—is just how little they are scripted. Here you have one of the most famous billionaires in the world talking directly to whoever will listen, without the “prior restraint” of minders and copyeditors.
“Should I use my personal account or company account to engage with influencers and the press?” It’s a question that comes up a lot when I speak to groups about using social media. My answer is always, “People like talking to people.” Despite the Supreme Court’s affirmation of “corporate personhood,” the idea of brands acting like humans is a bit absurd, especially when you think of all the rotten things humans do. And businesses don’t have feelings or worries or hopes.
But that’s not to say there’s no value to making brands more approachable, sincere, and quick to respond—these are all positive human traits that brands can use to their benefit. It’s not a matter of mimicking humans, but of letting the humans behind the brand shine through.
Company leaders can have a big impact on internal and external perception of a brand and its leaders. For example, the 2013 BrandFog CEO Social Media Survey found that, among employees “83.9% believe that CEO social media engagement is an effective tool to increase brand loyalty.” The same survey also revealed that 68.7% of employees “definitely” or “somewhat” agree that “C-Suite social media engagement make[s] a brand seem more honest and trustworthy.”
A powerful mindset
Powerful people have already made it. They don’t need to use social media. Both of these are true statements. So is this one: Mark Cuban could retire today and still be fantastically wealthy for the rest of his life. One more for you: Katy Perry could drop off Twitter and still sell out concerts around the world.
My point is simple. Powerful people do things to grow what they already have. It’s this “extra step” mindset that got them there in the first place, and social media is quickly becoming the extra step of choice for the world’s most successful people.