When CNN calls, you send a spokesperson, not your logo.
But how many busy public affairs executives lean on their brand to do the heavy lifting on social media, even though people trust people more than brands?
The National Digital Roundtable convened a group of public affairs leaders at the DC office of LinkedIn to discuss how executive visibility and personal branding can advance policy goals.
While the conversation was largely off-the-record, we agreed that these are the seven questions public affairs leaders should be asking themselves and their teams:
Is LinkedIn an effective tool in the public policy space in DC and beyond?
LinkedIn is consistently ranked the most trusted social network, and research shows that it is used more for work by Washington insiders than any other platform. (Check out Erica Pyatt's convincing piece about why Washington Turns to LinkedIn for Trusted Information.)
While many Members of Congress do not regularly share content from their personal LinkedIn profiles (with notable exceptions being Tim Scott, Cory Booker and Kevin McCarthy), their staff in the legislative branch, and both staff and officials in the executive branch, are active and engaged on the platform.
In our conversation, one roundtable participant shared an example of a regulator reaching out to their DC office after seeing unfavorable LinkedIn posts about a policy change. Another public policy leader shared an example of hearing directly from a European regulator who saw a LinkedIn post. It is worth noting that some social platforms are banned by government officials in the U.S. and Europe, whereas LinkedIn is not.
Constituents are also on LinkedIn. While a grassroots audience like teachers may not be as active on LinkedIn as they are on Instagram, the grasstops leaders who influence them, such as superintendents and education policy influencers are quite active on the platform.
What’s the shelf-life of the story we’re telling?
For conversations with a long tail, LinkedIn can provide sustained and ongoing engagement. However, this doesn’t translate to breaking news, where Twitter continues to be the platform of choice. Participants recommend sharing information that will be relevant for weeks, not hours.
The exception may be trending topics on LinkedIn News. The Bipartisan Policy Center's housing policy leader Dennis Shea was featured as part of LinkedIn News, resulting in not only much more reach and engagement for their work, but an inquiry from a reporter.
Is it really a conversation if it’s one-way?
Leaders who excel on LinkedIn don’t simply post and log off. They join conversations by liking, commenting and reposting what others are saying. In fact, Social Driver’s analysis showed that the top leaders engage ten times for every one time they post. LinkedIn confirmed that leaders who engage more find more success on the platform and enhance their visibility further.
A great place to start is with your own workforce. Especially in today’s remote and hybrid workplace, leaders can’t depend on breakroom small talk. But celebrating a colleague publicly on LinkedIn can deepen relationships and foster a positive culture.
Who should our brand ambassador(s) be?
While executive thought leadership is often programmatically focused on the C-Suite, don’t discount other leaders throughout your organization. They are often your best brand ambassadors, because they likely are already on LinkedIn to build their own personal brands and come with the professional experience to know what is appropriate to share on social media.
The Investment Company Institute created personalized content and provided training for its leaders to promote a key event, effectively reaching these leaders’ connections on LinkedIn and driving measurable results.
Leaders are realizing the need for a variety of digital spokespeople. We heard from organizations that currently or plan to include expectations for thought leadership and social media presence in the job duties, from C-Suite down to Director-level.
How can we balance efficiency with authenticity?
When an organization highlights multiple people to serve as brand ambassadors, they often make the process more efficient by writing canned content. While this sounds great in theory, in practice it can come across as robotic and lead to less engagement.
Provide ideas or a guide, rather than pre-written posts, and train the team to personalize the post.
When Bobby Clark, partner at the health policy firm Pyxis Partners, shared an opinion piece he wrote about the public health case for marriage equality with a wedding photo and personal note about how it hit home for him personally, it became one of his most popular posts. Bringing a personal story and authenticity to his professional work made it more relevant and interesting to his network.
We also heard a variety of ways that organizations are building capacity. Two roundtable participants shared that their organizations recently created executive communications positions to work with leaders on a mix of traditional and digital tactics. Others discussed outside agency support. There was broad agreement that an intern is not best positioned to create thought leadership content for a senior leader.
Does our social media policy advance company goals or create a “culture of don’t”?
Company social media policies often focus on telling employees what they can’t do and focus on ensuring employees do not act as official company spokespeople. Instead, focus on empowering employees to talk about their perspective of what the company is doing on social media, and educate them on how social media posts can be used by media and others looking for negative stories.
“You have to move beyond what not to do,” said Ernestine Walls Benedict, Chief Communications Officer of ZERO TO THREE, who emphasized that team training can go a long way for team members who already share a passion for their organization’s mission and work.
What types of content work best for us and for the platforms?
Thought leaders don’t just repost what others say. They share their own perspective in multiple formats, ranging from longer-form articles, videos, live-streaming, and polls.
Different platforms lend themselves to different formats. A pithy remark may perform well on Twitter, whereas a long-form article published on LinkedIn may garner more readers than if it were posted to the company’s website.
It’s safe to say that LinkedIn would like its users to stay on LinkedIn, so content that keeps them there tends to perform best.