As a number of tweeters have pointed out today, the Pope isn’t the first to lose his job so soon after opening a Twitter account.
But the Pope’s resignation brings up some interesting points about tweeting CEOs. Just a few weeks ago, I noted that the Pope, in creating a Twitter stream, was way ahead of most big-company CEOs. Twitter has become an important new medium, and like it or not, important leaders should be on it.
But when setting up a CEO on Twitter, it’s worth putting some thought into the relationship between the CEO as a person and the institution he or she represents, and how much those two should be intertwined. Because, inevitably, the CEO and institution will part ways.
Let’s take Pope Benedict’s situation. He made a huge splash when he (well, really, his minions) started tweeting in January, and the account now has 1.5 million followers. (Incidentally, he did not tweet his own decision to resign.) The Twitter account is clearly labeled as belonging to Pope Benedict XVI, with a little photo of him waving. But he chose to register the account as @pontifex. Pontifex is Latin for a member of the highest order of priests.
So now Benedict leaves. Hard to imagine he’s going to keep tweeting. (“Day one away from Vatican; need to buy some pants.”) The next Pope should absolutely tweet. The church could pretty easily make the transition by continuing to use @pontifex and attaching it to the incoming guy. No followers lost. And the Twitter account gets established as being a mouthpiece for the institution of the papacy — not an individual person in that position.
But at a company, it would seem strange to establish a Twitter account as, say, @geceo, as apposed to @jeffimmelt. If Immelt leaves, the account follows him, not the position of GE CEO. Immelt could continue tweeting, reaching his…well…just 8,127 followers. But he’d no longer be representing GE — perhaps dangerously. What if he went to run another company? Or ran for political office?
GE attempts to address the potential problem by putting this on Immelt’s Twitter page: “Chairman & CEO of @GeneralElectric. Building, powering, moving, and curing the world. GE Works.” Presumably, after Immelt, that label would go on the next CEO’s page. But the next CEO will have to start building followers from scratch.
Warren Buffett has one of the more popular CEO Twitter feeds, with 121,823 followers even though he has tweeted exactly once. Interestingly, his page is labeled: “Investor, Philanthropist, Omaha, Nebraska.” It doesn’t even say he’s CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. But Buffet is Berkshire Hathaway. So, again — some potential weirdness if or when Buffett retires.
I don’t know if anyone has a rock-solid set of rules for this yet, and I can’t think of any disasters so far resulting from a renegade fired CEO tweeting. But this seems like an issue that should be on the table in any conversation about starting a CEO on Twitter.