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CEOs’ Uncensored Tweets And What You Can Learn From Them

Whether they lean more toward humorous, hostile, or honest, executives are taking to Twitter to shape their message and their brand.

CEOs’ Uncensored Tweets And What You Can Learn From Them
[Photo Illustration: Joel Arbaje for Fast Company, Sir Richard Branson: Flickr user Jarle Naustvik; Beth Comstock: Flickr user Krista Kennell/Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit; John Legere: Steve Sands, WireImage, Getty Images; Bill Gates: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson; Martha Stewart: Flickr user David Shankbone; Aaron Levie: Flickr user Enterprise 2.0 Conference]

For John Legere, the foul-mouthed, competitor-bashing CEO of T-Mobile profiled in the July/August issue of Fast Company, Twitter has been a tool for bringing some much-needed edge to the buttoned-up telecom sector. In an industry where CEOs are generally seen in suits at dull conferences and quarterly earnings meetings, Legere is known for lobbing expletives at AT&T and insults about Sprint’s Super Bowl ad, not to mention getting into full-blown Twitter smackdowns with Donald Trump.

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In a recent Twitter exploit, Legere launched a full-on offensive against one of his biggest competitors with the #NeverSettleForVerizon hashtag campaign. Unfortunately for him, though, the strategy backfired: Unsatisfied T-Mobile customers used the campaign to complain about their bad experiences with the network, responding with tweets like “Why would @TMobile pay to promote #NeverSettleForVerizon when they could’ve used that money to improve their service or pay workers better?”

But for Legere, fiascos like this are just par for the course. Even when things sometimes go south on social media, his goal is to stand out and be noticed. By that metric, he’s winning. If you’re looking for a social strategy to emulate to promote your own message or brand, Legere’s flamboyant approach may not be the way to go.

There is no single way to thrive on Twitter; your method depends on what you are trying to achieve, says Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group and author of The Engaged Leader: A Strategy for Your Digital Transformation. “Twitter is just a platform,” Li explains. “What you do with it is completely up to you. Business leaders are too busy to do anything that doesn’t align with their goals.”

Li regularly advises executives about how to use social technologies. The very first thing she asks them to consider when using Twitter is what their goals are. Is it simply to attract more customers? To increase employee loyalty? Is it to spark social change? Is it, much like Legere uses it, to infuse a brand personality and spunk? Across the Internet, CEOs are using Twitter in incredibly creative and personal ways.

A Sense of Humor Can Make Even Enterprise Software Interesting

Take Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, for example. Levie is a well-known thought leader in the field of enterprise software, a subject that would otherwise cause the average person to break into a yawn (or possibly a long nap). But Levie manages to keep his 148,000 followers engaged with wit and humor. He peppers his thoughts on the relevance of enterprise software in the modern world and user experience strategies with jokes about the new Domino’s Pizza emoji and that cozy moment he shared with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

Can You Change The World With A Tweet?

Richard Branson, on the other hand, rarely discusses his businesses on Twitter. Instead, he uses the platform to turn the attention of his 5.65 million followers to social and political causes that are often obscure or unpopular. For example, Branson regularly tweets about drug reform, since he strongly believes that incarceration for drug offenses is not good for society. He also reminds his followers about how 30 million people in 800 cities rallied to stop the Iraq War from happening, in what still remains the biggest protest in human history.

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Cementing Relationships With Kanye West And Ludacris

For Martha Stewart, Twitter has been a way to build relationships with other influencers and celebrities, which is valuable to her since she invites many of these personalities to be guests on her show. When she goes to events, she regales her 3 million followers with selfies taken with other power players. (Hello, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian! Check out Marissa Meyer at a conference!) Earlier this year, Stewart was invited to roast Justin Bieber on Comedy Central, where she surprised everybody by delivering the sickest burns of the night. Not one to waste an opportunity to cement a relationship, she went on to send her fellow roasters her newest whimsical bed linens, with a charming note encouraging them to do with the sheets what they choose. And she tweeted about it.

An Opportunity To Inspire

Beth Comstock, GE’s CMO, uses her Twitter feed to share with her 70,000 followers what she’s reading, along with helpful takeaways. Comstock, who is often highlighted as an example of a woman who has managed to ascend the ranks of a technology company, uses her platform to inspire others and offer useful strategies for how to succeed in business. For instance, she recently posted articles about how to get over rejection on the job, how to train our brains not to wander, and creative ways to blow off steam.

The Personality Behind The Name

Bill Gates is synonymous with the two organizations he founded: Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He uses Twitter to give his 22 million followers insight into his personality, and to share the books he’s been reading, his favorite TED talks, and the strategies he believes will help tackle poverty and disease. His Twitter feed is designed to humanize him, transforming him from a distant figurehead into a real person. In doing so, his organizations also feel a little more personal.

How Not To Be Overwhelmed By Twitter

Twitter can be a wonderful platform for achieving your goals as a leader, but for many people, the prospect of taking a plunge into the Twittersphere is anxiety-inducing. Twitter can seem overwhelming and hard to control. You can’t decide who will follow you, and if you have a public account, anybody in the world can see what you’re tweeting. Li has heard many of these concerns, and she insists that Twitter is far less terrifying than it initially seems. Here are some of her guidelines:

Will it be a major time suck? “The biggest complaint I hear from people is that they don’t have the time for something like this,” Li says. But Li makes the case that Twitter can really be anything you want it to be. For some CEOs, it might just be enough to use Twitter to listen to what customers are saying about their brand. “CEOs invest so much money on focus groups or listening tours, but with Twitter they can get so much insight while they are waiting for their coffee to brew in the morning,” she says.

Can I hire a social media manager? And if they do actually want to take the plunge, Li says there is nothing wrong with getting a little bit of help from communications experts. While many business leaders are at the helm of their own Twitter accounts, there are many others who employ social media managers to construct tweets. Li’s only piece of advice is to be sure that you approve every single tweet that goes out in your name.

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Do I have to respond to every single tweet? Business leaders also worry that they will need to start responding to every single person who lobs a tweet in their direction. Li says it is perfectly reasonable to be selective about who you choose to engage with. “You don’t need to feel like you are losing control,” Li says. “You don’t have to respond to anybody at all, or you can choose to respond only to the people you really care about.”

How do I get lots of followers? For some people, the number of Twitter followers you have has become something of a vanity metric, helping to boost people’s egos. But Li says this is a wrong-headed approach. Your experience on Twitter should be strategic and help you achieve very specific objectives, and those objectives don’t necessarily need to be about having the most fans. “You need to think about who you want to have following you and why you want to speak to them,” Li says. “If you are laser focused on the kind of relationship you are trying to nurture, the followers will absolutely come.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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