by Michael O'Neill
February 20th, 2013

Looking back to 2012, research such as IBM’s Global CEO Survey suggests that executive leaders have finally embraced social media.

The rationale for the conversion is sound business strategy. The report conveyed companies that outperform peers were 30% more likely to identify openness — characterised by greater use of social media platforms — as a key influence on their organisations.

Executive adoption seems totally logical. We’re now a decade into a business conversation still heavy on hard-core social media evangelising coupled with progressive management philosophy.

But here’s the rub: a growing body of research suggests CEOs and social networking, at face value, remain an unlikely pair.

According to the new Socialising Your CEO report released by Weber Shandwick, only 18% of the world’s largest company CEOs have their own social network pages. This marks a paltry 2% increase from our previous report released in 2010.

For every aspirational leadership rationale for signing up ─ to present an authentic face, get closer to customers, engage employees ─ there are pragmatic reasons still keeping the majority away.

Some simply don’t see the cost-benefit of the personal commitment. Others turn away due to the risk of well-documented personal attacks, disclosure issues or media scrutiny from off-the-cuff commentary.

From this perspective, the IBM findings, and others, indicate that CEOs’ position on social media is an extreme example of contradiction ─ theory and personal action completely at odds.

Taken from another vantage point, our new findings tell a different, more cohesive story.

Despite limited direct participation though their own social pages, an increasing number of CEOs are choosing to extend their spokesperson-in-chief role through their company’s pages and portals.

More than ever, CEOs are featured in company-produced digital content, engaging through their own corporate networks, and enabling story packages to be more easily shared through social media. Viewed through this lens, online CEO sociability rose dramatically over the past two years to 66% in 2012 from 36% in 2010.

Beyond video content, CEO interaction with employees on internal channels and live streaming of executive events that allow for social distribution and community interaction are on the rise.

In other words, CEOs understand they must be a leading voice with those who follow their company pages, without necessarily amassing and engaging a network of followers on personal pages.

Expect new content-driven media participation to increase CEO sociability. New platforms like LinkedIn’s Thought Leaders programme, topic-focused platforms like Medium, and incumbents like Forbes offer a mix of built-in content and social distribution opportunities without the burden of continuously maintaining a personal page. And Wall Street’s continued quest to mine trading information in real-time from social media makes the potential to effectively communicate issues close to the CEO even higher.

In the end, CEOs continually search for effective ways to make connections as well as communicate their vision internally and externally. If you look at sociability through the lens of personal pages, they remain largely absent. Through company pages, content rules for CEO participation — in rapidly increasing numbers.

Chris Perry is president, digital, at Weber Shandwick

This article first appeared on Forbes.com

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