Social Top Leaders

Peggy Simcic Brønn

Chief Executive Officer’s social media presence can be beneficial to organizations. However, not every top leader should be on social media.

KNOWLEDGE @BI: Communication for Leaders

In 2017, an Oslo-based communication agency, released a survey on Norwegian top leaders’ participation in social media. The agency concluded that top leaders are logged off and unengaged.

The agency argues that people are more trusting of ‘people like us’ thus leaders are missing the opportunities that social media provide to engage with stakeholders in a personal way that increases their credibility.

However, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer (cited by the agency), top leaders are not ‘people like us’.

In almost all cases it is an organization’s employees who are perceived as ‘people like us’ and who are viewed as the most credible sources of information about an organization.  

CEO’s are the least credible source of information, and trust in top leaders is at an all-time low around the world.  The only people who view top leaders as ‘people like us’ are other top leaders.

Reluctant to engage – the reasons why

There is no doubt that today’s internet-based tools provide a fast and efficient channel for one-to-all communication. They are also recognized for providing a great opportunity for two-way interaction, discussion and conversation.  

However, including CEO’s as part of an organization’s profiling/branding efforts through social media channels needs to be handled with care. Recent research indicates that CEO’s are indeed reluctant to engage in social media, but the reasons tend to be personal as opposed to ignorance.

For example, there is evidence that a CEO’s level of activity in social media is based on self-image and the degree of being perceived as narcissistic.  CEO’s may be cautious in their use of social media because they view it as self-presenting.

Conversely, when CEO’s do engage on social media it is often as part of a corporate social media strategy and as such they lose a degree of authenticity and a personal touch, prerequisites for being perceived as credible or trusting.

Leadership styles determine

Leveraging social media for leader communication requires organizations to think about the CEO’s personal leadership traits. There is data that indicates that leadership styles determine a leader’s social media strategy. 

Transformational leaders, for example, tend to be accessible and transparent, while transactional leaders focus on professionalism and efficiency when using social media. 

When it comes to content strategy, professional-oriented profiles are the least desirable because while they are perceived as competent, they have a low level of authenticity and empathy. 

Not every top leader should be on social media

There is an acceptance that CEO’s social media presence can be beneficial to organizations. However, not every top leader should be on social media as it is not a channel that is compatible with their leadership style. This is important because it is not possible to fake authenticity.

Corporate communicators cannot ignore the importance of a CEO’s perception of their own leadership style and its effect on how they conceive and decide their social media strategies.

Assessing a CEO’s leadership style and approach to communication is much more complicated than going by a check list of what they should be saying and how they should say it and where.

Encouraging CEO’s to engage in social media should be approached with care.  Leaders’ and thus an organizations’ image of being authentic depends on it.


Leadership Style

Mental Model for Social Media Leadership Communication 

Social Media Activity Level

Transactional Leader  Thought leader  Focuses on professionalism and efficiency, sees benefits of social media, confident in sharing own ideas in professional network
Reserved Transactional Leader  Professional Networker Prefer to use social media to connect with professional network to obtain information and broadcast own message
Transformational Leader  Story Teller Emphasizes accessibility and transparency, positive to narcissism, strives for charismatic and authentic content building
Reserved Transformational Leader  Selective Performer Only publicizes stories to selected audiences through internal platforms 

Table: Leadership Styles, Mental Model for Social Media Leadership Communication and Social Media Activity Level.


  • Lee, H-H. M. (2017). You Are All Competent, but Can You Be Nice? Leveraging Social Media for Leadership Communication. Summer AMA Proceedings.
  • Lee, H-H. M. (2016). Paving the Way for Social CEOs: An Exploration on Using Social Media in Leadership Communication. Summer AMA Proceedings.

This article is first published in Communication for Leaders No. 2 - 2017. 

Communication for Leaders is a Science Communication Magazine published by Centre for Corporate Communication and Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 22. February 2018

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