The Right (and Wrong) Ways for Leaders to Use Social Media in a Downturn

The wrong post can open your company up to public scrutiny and criticism. But by going dark, you miss an opportunity to demonstrate steady leadership in the face of adversity.

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By Remy Scalza

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Earlier this year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shared a difficult announcement with his team: in response to economic challenges, 5% of Microsoft's workforce — an estimated 10,000 employees — would be losing their jobs.

Just a few days later, Nadella shared news of a very different kind with his 10 million LinkedIn followers — the revolutionary new AI tool, ChatGPT, would officially be coming to the Microsoft platform. That update went viral, garnering more than 100,000 likes and thousands of reshares as enthusiastic followers celebrated Microsoft's partnership with the game-changing AI technology.

In the process, Nadella illustrated one of the most important principles of digital leadership in a downturn — whatever you do, don't go dark. For businesses of all sizes, keeping up a steady flow of news and information on social media can be crucial to sustaining forward momentum.

Related: Why CEOs Need to Embrace Social Media (and How to Do it)

Having a strong digital presence on social media is no longer an option for leaders. Employees, investors, customers and stakeholders increasingly expect to hear from leadership on social media. By a four-to-one ratio, employees prefer to work for a CEO who's active on social media, according to Brunswick Group's Connected Leadership report — and financial readers and investors are much more likely to trust a connected leader.

For leaders in crisis mode, however, it's tempting to recede from the public eye. Mission-critical work and tough decisions demand your attention. Posting on social media risks opening you and your company up to public scrutiny and criticism. But by going silent on digital channels, you're missing out on the opportunity to demonstrate strong leadership and provide a human face and voice during difficult times.

Granted, navigating the complex and chaotic landscape of social media is no easy feat against the backdrop of a downturn. Here are five tips from recognized leaders who excel at digital communication, to help inspire and guide your social media efforts:

Boost your team up

During periods of economic turbulence, employees aren't immune to stress. Concerns about job security and economic prospects can conspire to weigh down morale and culture. Recent surveys show that almost the entire workforce has been worried about job security since recession talks started last year. Showing recognition is a tried and true way to keep morale up and has a massive boost on business outcomes.

Brian Scudamore, world-famous founder of trash removal service, 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, gets it. In a recent LinkedIn post, he emphatically commends two employees for their positive contributions to the company's culture. What especially works about the post is that it's authentic — his words are genuine and caring, and the selfie is an effective personal touch.

It's not hard to offer some recognition, and it goes a long way toward keeping your team engaged. What's critical is that the praise be specific and heartfelt, rather than an anonymous pat on the back.

Related: 4 Reasons LinkedIn Has Become Indispensable to Business Leaders

Don't sugarcoat

It's natural for leaders to want to convey resilience and steadiness in the face of adversity. But people and employees will see through that if it comes at the cost of honesty and vulnerability. Indeed, research illustrates that most employees don't trust CEOs, and obscuring the truth can actually be detrimental to morale. Being truthful, even when the news isn't good, will pay off.

It's a tricky balance to strike, but PayPal CEO Dan Schulman pulls it off in this New Year post. He's honest about the challenges his company, like many others, faced last year — inflation, global instability and tensions around how, where and why we work — but he keeps the focus on successes and positive sentiments. The result is a genuine and energizing message.

Keep the lights on

It's obvious, but worth reiterating: One of the worst ways to communicate is to not communicate at all. In the absence of information from leadership, customers, employees and investors will develop their own narratives and often presume the worst. This effect can be magnified if an otherwise socially active leader abruptly cuts off communication.

Sustaining a line of communication — even (especially) when things are bad — ultimately builds trust. Serial entrepreneur and Dragon's Den Dragon Michele Romanow illustrated this principle recently in announcing the difficult decision to resign from the CEO role at the company she founded. By sharing this news openly on LinkedIn, Romanow was able to offer a clear explanation for the move and also reassure investors and customers that the company was well-positioned going forward.

Stand for something bigger

The impact of a downturn reverberates beyond just you and your company. Families face challenges making ends meet. Municipalities find their budgets stretched thin. Existing social and economic disparities are magnified.

For leaders, acknowledging these challenges on social media and showing a commitment to making a difference can be critical. Corporate social responsibility shouldn't recede into the background simply because the economy has slowed. Goldman Sachs' CEO David Solomon shows this principle in practice, regularly posting about progress in protecting marriage rights, for example, while also advocating for charities to address poverty in the face of a downturn.

Importantly, however, this can't simply be lip service. In the absence of concrete action, even good-intentioned leaders risk facing blowback from trolls and critics.

Related: How to Become an Authentic Leader in the Digital Era

Find ways to add value

The most effective digital leaders understand a crucial principle of social media: It only works if you give more than you take. You shouldn't only be sharing updates about yourself and your company. You should be adding value to your feeds, too. During a downturn, when your followers' time, energy and resources are stretched thin, this is especially important.

Smart digital leaders are experts at sharing engaging and useful content that still relates to their work. For example, founder and CEO of IFundWomen, Karen Cahn, spotlights BIPOC entrepreneurs and women in business for people invested in these communities. She diversifies her content with video, which offers a quick and immersive way to absorb ideas on the go.

Strong leaders know to avoid a communications vacuum — especially during a downturn. Actively sharing your story is the surest way to preempt gossip and misinformation. Ultimately, leaders who avoid the knee-jerk reaction to "go dark" in a crisis are often best positioned to retain trust with employees, customers and key stakeholders over the long haul.

Remy Scalza

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Co-founder of CSuite Content, senior editor at Hootsuite

Remy Scalza is an award-winning author who has written about business, technology and travel for publications including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He helps CEOs and senior executives find their voice and share their message with global media as co-founder of CSuite Content, a boutique thought leadership agency.   

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