They called it the Snowpocalypse. When the East Coast was slammed by a massive storm this past winter, Newark Mayor Cory Booker hit the streets, coming to the aid of stranded residents and literally shoveling out a transit bus. But tales of his derring-do weren't just transmitted by the media or word of mouth. The tech-savvy mayor also blasted out news of his exploits and engaged directly with constituents via Twitter, earning widespread plaudits.
Many respected observers argue that every executive should have a Booker-style "personal social media strategy." Indeed, it's almost malpractice not to use Google Alerts so you can monitor what's being said about you online, and there's no question that corporations need social media strategies in place to respond to customer complaints, build a brand identity, and perhaps capture some "viral" magic. But how much time should executives personally devote to feeding the gaping maw of social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, and more), as compared to other pressing duties?
When Massachusetts sought to boost its economy in the 1990s, then-Governor Bill Weld led an Asian excursion that helped a small Bay State company land a deal with Samsung; a later trip to Israel (including a sit-down with the nation's finance minister) helped push through a tax code change needed by a local venture capital firm. Why trek across the world for meeting? "If the governor's there, along with some elected officials, it really impresses folks,'' former Massachusetts State Senator Brian Lees told the Boston Globe.
In other words -- whether in politics or business -- leaders' very presence is a powerful force that can generate real impact. So how should top execs spend their time? By using their interpersonal skills -- and the power of their office -- to focus their time and energy on the people who matter (a shifting array of customers, key employees, the media, or others, depending on the company's needs). Even before becoming President, Bill Clinton was famed, as a New York Times Magazine profile reported, for "making eye contact so deep that recipients sometimes seem mesmerized." That's a powerful skill that simply can't be replicated on a blog or with a status update. The higher an executive rises in the hierarchy, the more inaccessible they generally are. That's what makes it so special when they take the time to reach out -- whether it's the CEO of Virgin America calling an angry passenger, top executives personally updating board members, or President Obama sending a handwritten note to a gay soldier promising the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Mayor Booker often tweets a dozen or more times per day -- and he's not alone in his obsession with new media. These days, social networking takes up twice as much time online as any other activity (nearly three times as much as email), and Facebook swallows an average of six hours per user each month. Booker's direct communication with constituents was a hit during the snowstorm. But can the expectation reasonably be sustained that if you tweet the mayor, he'll show up at your doorstep bearing diapers (as he did for one stranded mother)? Is it the best use of his time to personally field inquiries about potholes and malfunctioning streetlights? Other high-profile leaders like Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos) -- who boasts 1.7 million Twitter followers -- have learned to slow the pace (he tweeted twice during the month of January) or outsource (Alltop CEO Guy Kawasaki uses two full-time staffers to handle the volume).
No executive can afford to be a Luddite and dismiss all new media. Sometimes it's exactly the right way for you to spend your time (especially if you're "on the way up" and need to build your profile). But too many leaders dive in without thinking through the costs of social media (what else could you be doing with your time?). After all, in this crowded media landscape, sometimes what matters most isn't your use of 21st century technologies. Instead, it's the forgotten 19th century arts (handwritten notes, personal phone calls, and high-quality personal meetings) that can have the greatest impact.