By Jemima Gibbons, Social Media Strategist, AAB Engage

I recently gave a talk at an entrepreneurs lunch hosted by law firm Smith & Williamson on why CEOs need a social media presence (subtitle: Twitter, tea and sympathy).

The talk was prompted by the fact we’ve seen a number of CEOs in the firing line over the past two years: BP’s Tony Hayward, Toyota’s Akio Toyoda and the fashion designer Kenneth Cole in particular have suffered a barrage of criticism for different reasons.

It was interesting to see how Toyoda and Cole used social media to help rescue their reputations. Hayward did not (and he is no longer a CEO).

After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of April 2010, Tony Hayward had no voice. By this, I mean that no-one was interested in what he really wanted to say. Many of the public comments he did make were taken in a negative light and used against him. Things may have been different if he had had an established Twitter account and a following of people who already had a relationship with him pre-oil spill.

Instead of investing in social media, BP is rumoured to have spent more than $93m on traditional advertising in the four months following the disaster. The company ignored social media at its peril: a fake Twitter profile, @BPGlobalPR (164,000 followers), spoof Facebook page and Greenpeace-backed Flickr competition quickly stepped up to fill the vacuum, damaging BP’s reputation still further.

Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota didn’t have a Twitter account either. But when 7m vehicles were recalled in January 2010, he saved the day by responding quickly through social media: he posted a video apology on YouTube. The actual situation hadn’t changed, but Toyoda averted a crisis - he managed to reassure customers that his company was doing everything in its powers to solve its production problems.

American clothing designer Kenneth Cole made the mistake of using the #Cairo hashtag on Twitter to promote a spring sale. In February 2011, during the height of the Egyptian revolution, he tweeted: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online”.

To his credit, Cole quickly realised the callousness of this tweet, which instantly provoked a storm of criticism on Twitter. He soon posted a full apology on his company’s Facebook page.

These three examples show how social media can be used to both avert and fuel a crisis. The important lesson to realise is that, as Tony Hayward learnt to his cost, social silence is not an option.

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