Has your CEO been trolled yet?

CEO use of LinkedIn has surged in recent years, as a growing number of leaders have latched onto its value as a communications tool.

The social media site provides a direct route to your audience in a way earned media simply doesn’t. It now allows individuals to pay to target specific audiences, in the same way company pages have been able to for years. And, perhaps most importantly, it offers a safer space to engage when compared to other platforms, especially Facebook or Twitter.

Or does it?

It’s early days, but we’re seeing mounting evidence that LinkedIn’s character is changing. Analysis conducted at Headland in recent weeks shows many CEOs are now being targeted with a stream of negative comments in response to their posts.

Sometimes, the comments relate directly to the content. More often, however, the post simply provides the mechanism for negative or angry comments on other issues affecting the company and its customers.

BP is a prominent example of this. CEO Bernard Looney is one of the most active leaders on LinkedIn. He has built up almost 180,000 followers, writes in an engaging, informal style (many leaders still don’t), and draws thousands of likes and other positive reactions.

Yet more and more of his posts are subject to a slew of comments and criticism from BP pension scheme members, demanding increases in line with inflation to pensions that are being paid. Criticism of BP’s approach to carbon emissions and net zero also features.

Looney isn’t alone. We’ve identified clear examples of CEOs in the airline industry, in utilities like water or energy, and in financial services all coming in for regular criticism and attack on LinkedIn. Customer service (or rather the lack of it) is also a common theme.  

This is significant. For years LinkedIn has been seen as a safe space to communicate because of its reputation as the social platform for work and careers and the positive, constructive attitude of its members. Now, seemingly, the word is out that it’s a good place to reach (and complain to) the CEO directly in a way you can’t elsewhere.

For the most part, the criticism remains non-aggressive. A Twitter storm this is not. But it undoubtedly will have been noticed, and may be causing CEOs to think again about the merits of communicating on social.

If your CEO is facing this challenge (or you think they might in future), there are three options to consider:

1. Constructively and selectively respond

Responding to every single comment is impractical and unnecessary (not least as there are some people you’ll never be able to appease). However, there is merit in crafting responses to selected comments where there are valid concerns or criticisms. One post could do the work of addressing several negative comments here, rather than replying to each one individually. The goal ultimately, as with good community management on any social platform, should be to take complaints and criticism offline. But displaying at least some degree of engagement and acknowledging concerns raised should be given serious consideration.

2. Hunker down and ignore

The natural reaction perhaps, and one our analysis suggests is being pursued by some CEOs facing attack. The danger of doing so is two-fold though: ignoring criticism entirely will strengthen the resolve of posters rather than shutting them down; and that in turn could lead to escalation, whether by drawing attention to the problem via high-profile media or politicians, or pursuing more heavy-handed tactics online or in-person.

3. Retreat from LinkedIn

This feels highly counter-productive. LinkedIn remains a brilliant platform to reach a large, relevant and targeted audience in a controlled way. The platform also shows no sign of moving away from its preference for content from individuals over companies. A company without a communicative leader will struggle to fulfil its goals on LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is popular and effective because of its humanity as a platform. It’s not perfect, but it does successfully break down the barriers that businesses often put up.

CEOs embracing this platform has been good in this regard, and using LinkedIn is increasingly becoming an expectation rather than an experimental tactic for the C-suite.

Naturally, though, with greater communication comes greater room for scrutiny. It would be a significant setback if this caused more CEOs to retreat into their shell rather than continue to communicate on the front foot.    

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