CEOs that engage actively and effectively in social media are still a tiny minority in the business world – especially in the financial services sector. A CEO that chooses active engagement in online social networks is still seen as a thought leader.
Peter Aceto is just such a thought leader.
With over 14,000 Twitter followers, Aceto is among the premiere social CEOs in the North American financial services industry. The success he has achieved building a personal brand that is interwoven with his leadership role at a prominent financial organization is instructive for many other business leaders pursuing social networking strategies in the financial services sector.
Peter Aceto is the CEO of ING Direct Canada (now in the process of rebranding as Tangerine as a result of being acquired by Scotiabank). Aceto’s success in social media has not been accidental; it was part of his strategy all along.
Back in 2010, Aceto published a blog post entitled I’m a CEO and I Tweet. The post reads like a manifesto for the engaged, social CEO. In it, Aceto outlines the reasons why he chose to embrace social media as a financial executive:
I feel my personal involvement in being transparent would be important for our brand. As the CEO of ING DIRECT I represent a portion of the corporate brand externally. We naturally look to our leaders for answers and direction, and people trust people. Which is why my goal is to form trust, be real and accessible.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing crisis of faith in the financial services sector and its leaders, Aceto set out to be a different kind of financial CEO. Social media offered him a platform to engage directly with his audience and demonstrate how his commitment to open dialogue and transparency made him and his company different from the rest.
(You really ought to read the entire post by Aceto because it makes a very compelling case for his social engagement strategy - I’m a CEO and I Tweet.)
How to be a social CEO
Aceto takes this commitment to connect with his customers and audience very seriously and this is reflected in how he manages his online presence. According to media reports, Aceto maintains hands-on access to his own Twitter account and regularly engages with followers and shares information and links he finds interesting.
I’m tweeting on behalf of our organization. It’s me, it’s not fake and I do all the writing myself and I share insights I have throughout the day – whether I’m in a meeting or I get an interesting leadership article. There’s also some personal stuff in there because I have my own little agenda that isn’t really an ING agenda, but it’s about leaders, particularly CEOs and the stereotype that we have that I don’t like very much. I’m trying to break down some barriers in terms of what it means to be a CEO.
While Aceto’s social networking success is largely driven by his vision of engagement and his own strengths as a communicator, he’s far from a one-man band. He’s built a stellar team of social media professionals around him, led by Jaime Stein who is an accomplished social media professional in his own right and previously led the Canadian Football League’s digital and social strategy.
Aceto acknowledges the assistance he gets from his team in this excerpt from an interview he did in 2012:
I do have a handful of people within the organization who are really social in their personal lives and help us drive our social platforms. They provide me with advice and some of the best tools to use. Some of them even forward things along to me to recommend that I tweet. I can’t read all those articles all the time, so some people will read things and think I’ll find it interesting and they’ll e-mail it along and say ‘Hey, Peter, you should tweet this’.
As CEO, Aceto has a busy and demanding schedule. So he relies on his team to discover and recommend content for him to share, as well as recommend tools he should be using. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that his team was also monitoring his social accounts and looking for potentially positive opportunities for engagement, as well as listening carefully for any signs of its brand messaging going sideways.
Listening is the most social thing you can do
And sideways is exactly the direction the ING Direct Canada brand was heading in 2013 after launching a retirement season ad campaign. One of the television spots featured a stressed out man that the online audience interpreted as making light of symptoms associated with mental illness.
Being socially connected on Twitter, Aceto caught wind of the concerns quickly and responded effectively. Even though the company had done focus groups and had no intention of casting aspersions on mental health sufferers, ING Direct Canada quickly pulled the ad in question and in so doing averted any real damage to their brand.
In fact, you could argue this whole experience enhanced the ING Direct Canada brand. It demonstrated they were listening and responding to audience concerns. Moreover, it showed that their CEO wasn’t just flapping his gums about transparency and trust – he was willing to take responsibility and be accountable.
In my view, it is highly unlikely that this type of situation would have been as as deftly handled by a business leader who was not as immersed in social networks as Aceto. He listened, he was willing to see things a different way, and he was willing to act.
What business leaders can learn from the social CEO
There are important lessons here for financial CEOs, in fact, any business leaders, who are wondering what their role should be in the increasingly social enterprise.
1. Have a vision and a strategy
Peter Aceto tied his social engagement to his company’s corporate brand strategy to be different than other financial institutions, more transparent and trustworthy. And he tied his commitment to social engagement to his essential role as a CEO. Without this, he couldn’t justify the time spent to do it. Without a clear vision as to how your social engagement advances your key performance indicators, it will be hard to even start, let alone succeed.
2. The CEO IS the corporate brand
CEOs carry the mantle of corporate branding, more than ever in the social media age. The personal brand development of the CEO or any senior leader can advance the corporate brand’s objectives enormously, even disproportionately. It can also take them in the opposite direction, so professionalism and support is key.
3. The CEO is also a personal brand
Aceto is obviously comfortable with human interaction AND the technological tools that are increasingly mediating those intereactions. He is clearly a warm and genuine human being. Not all CEOs and business leaders share these communication gifts, but many do. And in the person-to-person, word-of-mouth world of social networking, human scale branding is as important and in some cases more important than traditional corporate branding.
4. Social CEOs need support
CEOs are busy people. And social media is best played as a team sport. Think of the way a broadcast team of researchers, writers, camera and sound technicians, even makeup artists, support a primetime television news anchor. Build a team around the CEO that can feed him/her great content, act as additional eyes and ears, identify key influencers, measure engagement, analyze data and support the CEOs brand. Do that for your CEO and your CEO will succeed in social.