It's an understatement to say that Tesla CEO Elon Musk's tweeting is different from perhaps any other public company CEO. He responds off-the-cuff to journalists and random followers, shares odd memes, uses it to announce go-private deals for which the Securities and Exchange Commission alleged funding was not secured -- and then mocks the SEC after settling with it. Now, the SEC alleges, Musk has broken a deal to have any potentially market-moving tweets about the electric vehicle company reviewed before letting them fly.
In that regard, at least, Musk is supposed to have something in common with other CEOs. Communications pros say that even if they aren't technically "approved," most companies have communications teams deeply involved in drafting, guiding, advising or reviewing a CEO's tweets - particularly if they're considered risky or material in any way.
"Very few CEOs hold the keys to publish on their own," said Craig Mullaney, a partner at the communications firm Brunswick who founded Facebook's Global Executive Programme, where he said he supported CEOs and other high-profile figures with social media strategy. "That would be very rare, and it implies a level of digital communications fluency and competency that most frankly don't have."
Communications experts say that while CEOs' management of their tweets run the gamut - there are some who are very hands-on and do have control of their accounts, while others don't know how to pull up the app and outsource the job entirely to the PR staff. But the most prevalent practice is for communications teams to draft or suggest posts that are then signed off by the CEO, said Vivian Schiller, CEO of the Civil Media Foundation and a former executive editor in residence at public relations firm Weber Shandwick and head of news at Twitter.
"Most CEOs are fairly conservative and gun shy and frankly, rightfully afraid of Twitter," she said. But "there are certainly exceptions and you can sort of feel it. It can feel spontaneous and off the cuff - you can tell if someone is drafting their own tweets."
Tweets are not meant to sound like a press release, and a certain level of personality needs to show through for a tweet to resonate and be effective -- a tricky balancing act for often conservative CEOs. Schiller points to the battle that erupted between Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff over a San Francisco ballot measure to help the homeless as a good example. (Benioff, according to a company spokeswoman, is the only person with access to his Twitter account.)
"That felt very authentic and demonstrated a very savvy use of Twitter," Schiller said. She added that "the wonderful thing about Twitter is it's so personal and authentic, and the terrible thing about Twitter is it's so personal and authentic. It really cuts both ways."
That's certainly the case with Musk, who has more than 25 million followers but also sends out eccentric missives filled with shared memes, middle-of-the-night responses to users and of course, the business-related tweets that have drawn the ire of the SEC. As one communications executive, granted anonymity to speak openly, put it: "Elon Musk has gotten that all too right, and that's the problem."
Some communication pros say that because the tweets sent by most CEOs are rarely controversial, even in the slightest - a selfie from a conference they're attending, a shout-out for a sports team, a non-provocative observation about a trend in the industry - they often don't need approval from legal or even public relations, and the level of review depends on the topic or risk level.
But boards are starting to pay more attention to the issue, even if they also aren't signing off on individual tweets.
"They want to know what the communications strategy is around social media, and what are the guardrails," Mullaney said. "what will they and what won't they speak to? What instances are they jumping in on?"
Other CEOs have grown more accustomed to the platform, said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for Weber Shandwick, and have a little more free rein.
"I think that for CEOs who are very comfortable and have been using Twitter for a number of years, there's less oversight because it's a natural extension of their communications," she said. "It really depends on what they're talking about."
Of course, the vast majority of CEOs just avoid it altogether. Brunswick's analysis of the top 500 US companies by revenue, found that just 77, or 15.5 per cent, of their CEOs were on Twitter. Only about 47 of them, however, were considered "active," sending a tweet in the past 30 days.
- Jena McGregor writes on leadership issues for the Washington Post