Why bosses should not be afraid of speaking out on Instagram

Pilita Clark: Social media can be risky but authenticity on such platforms is rewarded

Last week David Solomon, the boss of Goldman Sachs, was enjoying a spot of sunshine at a tech conference in San Francisco. Bernard Looney, BP's new chief executive, was in Cairo meeting the president of Egypt, and Ana Botín, head of Spain's Santander bank, was thrilled about the Vivaldi at a concert in Madrid.

How do I know this? Because all three were busily posting about themselves on Instagram, the photo-sharing site that has become a popular addition to the corporate PR toolbox.

I doubt their earnest wittering will ever grip devoted fans of the site, where recent lists of the 20 most-liked pictures have included Cristiano Ronaldo and an egg. But the wider response has also been mixed, for reasons that do not always strike me as sensible.

BP’s Looney is a case in point. He is a newcomer to Instagram and a rarity. Only 11 per cent of oil and gas company chief executives are active on social media, according to research the Brunswick PR group did last year. By comparison, 48 per cent of tech sector CEOs are practising posters, as are at least 20 per cent of bosses in the chemicals, auto, retail and utilities industries.


Yet instead of welcoming Looney’s plunge into social media, critics have lined up to warn of its dangers. His fossil fuel business is contentious, and trying to talk to climate activists on social media could blow up in his face, one PR executive told the BBC. Another worried that too many try-hard bosses looked like dad dancers at a social media wedding.

Neither charge is persuasive. An oil company leader is hardly a stranger to controversy, especially at a time of rising climate concern. Even in a big oil producing country such as the US, polling last year showed most adults agree that fossil fuel use should be dramatically cut over the next two decades to tackle global warming.

Dad dancer

Looking like a dad dancer is the least of an oil boss’s problems. It is true that since Looney started posting on Instagram, some of his followers have told him BP is a greedy planet-wrecking pariah committing crimes against humanity. They kept it up last week when he announced plans to cut BP’s emissions to net zero by 2050. But so what? Surely that was predictable.

It is also true that social media can be dicey. Beleaguered Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam was ousted this month after posting an Instagram photo of himself with smiling top executives that was interpreted as a desperate move to save his job.

Banker Rory Cullinan quit a top job at the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2015 just weeks after a newspaper published Snapchat messages he had sent to his daughter complaining about being in "another friggin' meeting".

Perhaps business lures people who prefer spreadsheets to Shakespeare

Yet these incidents are rare considering 48 per cent of CEOs in S&P 500 and FTSE 350 companies are on social media. And there is an important larger argument: we should hear more of interest from these influential figures, not less.

Social media by its nature tends to reward authenticity and genuine revelation. As a breed chief executives have been hopelessly cautious and prim. Legal and fiduciary constraints may make it hard to speak out in office. Yet even after leaving the number who pen a memoir has always seemed relatively paltry.

To check this theory I rummaged through the library shelves last week where, sure enough, business memoirs are grossly outnumbered by those from the world of politics. In the A-to-C sections alone there were three political memoirs to every one book from a Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson or John Browne.

Business memoirs

I realise this is not a scientific study. I also know there are many significant business memoirs. Lee Iacocca and Bob Lutz both did a service with their respective accounts of life inside the US car industry. Jack Welch did the same for General Electric. There is a reason why Warren Buffett and Bill Gates named Shoe Dog, by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, as one of their favourite reads of 2016. Each offered an insight into how a big slice of the world works. Why aren't there more of them?

Perhaps business lures people who prefer spreadsheets to Shakespeare. Maybe CEO stories don’t sell well. Either way, corporate titans should reveal more. If venturing onto Instagram helps ease the path to publication, that is good. It’s fine to mock their posts, but we should also welcome them. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020