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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

How a CEO Can Use Social Media to Navigate a Crisis

You needn’t look too far in 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis to see the importance of honest and frequent communication to successful crisis-time leadership.  From Jack Welch to Warren Buffett to Indra Nooyi, every successful crisis-time CEO I profiled is a frequent internal and external communicator.   

And as social media becomes more integral to daily conversations for many CEOs (see my own experience: “Extra, Extra, Tweet All About It”), and the economic landscape remains treacherous, I believe CEOs should plan to utilize social media as they navigate a crisis. 

Sergio Marchionne certainly fits the bill as a crisis-time CEO, as he currently is facing severe uphill challenges with depleted market share and tumbling vehicle sales at Chrysler.  Using Mr. Marchionne as a case-study, and several of the 7 Lessons as a testing ground, let’s examine how Chrysler’s CEO could be utilizing social media to effectively navigate the economic crisis.

Lesson #1: Face reality, starting with yourself.  What better way to “face reality” than to engage a filter-less social network like Twitter or Facebook and see first-hand the breadth of both customer discontent and insight into possible solutions?  By plugging in personally, Mr. Marchionne can obtain perspective of where he and Chrysler have fallen short with their customers, something he won’t necessarily receive in the boardroom. 

Lesson #4: Get ready for the long haul.  Ushering Chrysler back to prosperity is an extended engagement.  So is engaging in social media outreach, but building these relationships online can play a pivotal role in helping Chrysler rebuild a loyal customer base.  Brands like IBM, Comcast, Zappos, and Sun MicroSystems have done a phenomenal job of engaging the social media space and accruing followers through genuine interaction.  If Chrysler is serious about taking the time to redefine its market value and revamp its now-tarnished customer trust relationship, a long-haul social media investment can help them get there.

Lesson #5: Never waste a good crisis.  Right now, Chrysler is wasting its crisis.  Leadership isn’t taking steps to institute the fundamental changes that need to be made.  The company is disconnected from customers at a corporate level and disconnected from the marketplace at the product level; they can’t sell a personality or a culture, and they can’t sell cars.  Chrysler is taking steps to ameliorate the latter, but not the former.

But Chrysler and Mr. Marchionne can begin the process with social media.  By undertaking an engaging social media campaign – much like Volkswagen has with its “Fun Campaign”– Chrysler can reinvent itself and improve the way it markets not only its cars but its culture.  This current crisis could be providing Chrysler with a one-time opportunity to innovate around customer engagement, and social media can help Mr. Marchionne capitalize on that opportunity.

Lessons #6: You’re in the Spotlight.  Mr. Marchionne, the press is watching your every move as is.  And so far, you have displayed tact and poise as the face of Chrysler.  But you can do more, and you can harness that media spotlight to a greater degree by disseminating your message even further with social media.  Hop on Twitter for an hour a day and connect.  I see that you have a Facebook page, but it’s gone stale – you can engage it much more.  Traditional media is going the way of the dodo.  If you are serious about Chrysler’s long-term viability and growth (which it appears you very much are), it makes sense for you to secure a long-term, growing-spotlight forum.  This will ensure that you continue to engage with your customers, colleagues, and the media, and retain control over Chrysler’s image (and your own).  These are crucial components to leading the organization out of the current crisis.