Book Excerpt: "Effective Directors"

Marshall Manson and Craig Mullaney identify the key questions that board members should consider when it comes to social media.

An early twentieth century political and communications axiom exhorts leaders and businesses to resist the temptation to “pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” A useful truism, to be sure, for a world where newspapers and professional media organizations were key forces in defining reputation. These days, as countless examples have brought to life, no one needs to own a printing press in order to have a major impact. Social media platforms and mobile phones equip everyone with the tools to capture and distribute content and, therefore, enable anyone to have influence, sometimes only for a moment.

This wholesale realignment and democratization of communications hold profound consequences for business. Every business leader, and the boards to which they are accountable, needs to appreciate the powerful role that social media can play in shaping your business’s reputation and how it engages key audiences. The landscape offers real opportunities, but there are also critical risks to manage and mitigate. In this chapter, we explore social media at a strategic level, and offer a series of questions that directors should be considering as part of a broader business strategy. We will also offer some specific thoughts on practical steps that any business or institution might consider.

Before we consider implications, we must first define our terms: social media is any internet-dependent platform that enables two or more people to establish a durable connection and share information. The most common examples are household names: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are all platforms that fit the definition. Each fuels content sharing and public or partially public interaction between people. Platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram, and WeChat also enable content sharing and conversation. While interactions on these platforms are private and, in some cases, highly encrypted, that doesn’t make them any less social. Indeed, in some ways, the internet’s oldest form of social media is email.

The role of social media in society is, of course, increasingly a cause for debate ... Some are concerned that the platforms are amplifying extreme voices or contributing to the polarization of politics. But no one should underestimate their significance. Indeed, their centrality to public policy debates underscores how much these platforms matter to serious enterprises, including business.

From a business perspective, the most commonly understood role for social media is within marketing. Nearly all of the platforms offer opportunities, in one form or another, for businesses to distribute content to customers (or consumers for businesses that sell through retailers). However, the opportunity for businesses goes well beyond marketing. The same tools that enable engagement with a customer or consumer audience also allow connections with other audiences, for example, investors and other key reputational stakeholders.

If opportunities are abundant, so too are the risks. During an incident or crisis, social media helps information spread in seconds instead of minutes or hours. This provides benefit to an organization seeking to quickly set the record straight or reassure investors, customers, and employees. However, it also routinely provides a venue for critics to find an audience for a negative story. Social media can enable rapid organization by critics or supporters at great scale. It can provide a vehicle for employees to voice concerns. And in an age where state actors are using social media to destabilize politics and attack businesses, social media can be an enabler for their activities, too. Most importantly, social media has driven a change in expectations for businesses. Consumers, investors, B2B buyers, policymakers, and employees expect greater transparency and access than ever before. In particular, these key audiences expect leaders to use social media as a tool to communicate more effectively and more directly than in the past. Recent events have accelerated this trend by forcing us all to be more reliant than ever before on digital platforms to keep us connected.

With all of that in mind, we identify some key questions that directors should consider when it comes to social media.

  • How is social media activity being used to protect and enhance your company’s reputation?
  • To what extent are you using social media to understand perceptions of your company among key audiences, from customers to investors?
  • Is your company using social media as effectively as your competition?
  • How does your company look in Google? Does your reputation, as reflected in Google, match the reality as you see it? Social media activity can influence Google’s reflection of your reputation.
  • Do you have a framework in place to mitigate reputational risks?
  • What role will social media play in the event of a crisis or incident? What systems will alert you of a problem online and what response scenarios have you rehearsed?
  • Is the executive team as fluent in digital media as your customers, employees, or investors?
  • What policies do you have in place regarding board or executive team communications via non-corporate digital channels, for example, WhatsApp, SMS, a private group on social media?
  • Have social media profiles for the executive team and board members been reviewed to identify and mitigate any potential security or reputational vulnerabilities?
  • Does the company have a social media policy for its employees?
  • How are you using social media to assess risk and inform decision-making during a crisis, incident, or issues management situation?
  • Have you established a chain of command and protocol for crisis scenarios, both related to your company and for broader public tragedies?
  • How vulnerable would you be to a social media campaign driven by a well-known NGO?
  • How would your company respond to a coordinated social media campaign by an activist group?
  • If your company website became inoperative, what is your plan for communicating with customers, investors, and other stakeholders?
  • How would you respond to a coordinated disinformation campaign by a state or non-state actor targeting your organization?
  • A prominent politician has attacked your company in a social media post. Under what circumstances would you respond and how?
  • An activist investor has bought all the search terms on Google related to your company and they are directing clicks to a memo advocating for a new board slate. Do you know how to respond?
  • Is your social media activity delivering value for business development and/ or marketing? Done well, social media can help build brand value and drive sales.
  • Is the company using social media effectively to improve customer experiences? Successful activity could result in reduced call center volume or freeing up sales resources.
  • If a crisis forced the closure of your retail or customer support locations, what role would social media play in continuity of operations?
  • How are you using social media platforms to engage investors? According to Brunswick’s annual survey of institutional investors, 75% have made a final investment decision based on something they read or saw online, and social media platforms LinkedIn and Twitter are vital information sources.
  • Is the investor relations team effectively sharing the investor narrative to key audiences online during key moments such as earnings announcements?
  • How is your executive team using social media? Do their efforts compare favorably with your competition?
  • Do you have a social media playbook for announcing a planned key leader transition? What about an unexpected transition due to a workplace conduct or health-related issue?
  • Do the board and CEO have a platform to communicate with the entire company in the event of an office closing or crisis outside normal business hours?
  • Do your executives’ social media communications add to or detract from the company’s reputation?
  • Would a prospective customer or employee see your company’s purpose, values, and culture reflected through the executive team’s online communications?

Seventy-three per cent of FTSE 350 employees in the UK believe it is “important for CEOs to actively communicate about their company on social media,” and 80% believe that CEOs should use social media to communicate during a crisis situation. During the recent pandemic, CEOs and other business leaders used social media more than ever before to connect with employees, customers, investors, and other stakeholders.

  • How is your company using social media to perpetuate conversations with employees and provide opportunities for them to interact with leadership?
  • How is social media helping you find, attract, and retain great talent?
  • Do you have a clear policy and guidance in place for employees on how their social media activity relates to their role in the company?
  • Have you explored new or unexpected social media platforms to best communicate with employees on the channels they use most?
  • Are you equipping employees with content and platforms to advocate on behalf of the company?

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First published in Effective Directors: The Right Questions to Ask (QTA) (Routledge, 2021). All versions published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 license.


Marshall Manson
 is a Partner in Brunswick’s London office. He leads the firm’s digital offer in the UK, Europe and other key markets.

Craig Mullaney, a Brunswick Partner, based in Washington, DC, is an experienced advisor and a New York Times best-selling author. His Connected Leadership column spotlights how modern executives use digital and social media to communicate and lead organizations.

Illustration: James Yang