Q: Should business leaders be on Twitter? I realise we can’t all have tens of millions of fans like Elon Musk, but surely even a few hundred followers can be good for networking, marketing and thought leadership?
A: Perhaps I made a mistake five years ago when my grandson, Bede, helped me sign up for Twitter. I thought it was a brave move but decided not to send any tweets. So, thus far, I have only two followers. I don’t know where they came from – they have nothing to follow. I continue to restrict my written comments to this column and simply visit Twitter as a “stalker”, using my account to check up what others are saying about me on social media.
There have been some sobering moments, especially after my one and only appearance on Question Time, when a few tweeters used colourful language to slate my performance. I have now become used to the occasional political activist making a sweeping and inaccurate assault on my credibility, but, on balance, the ability to see what is being said has been of benefit.
Twitter was particularly helpful when a tweet told me that I was speaking at an event on a different date from the one in my diary. It has also helped to see the comments posted by delegates after attending one of my talks. Constructive criticism is nearly always more helpful than generous praise.
In contrast, Timpson’s chief executive, my son James, has a very active Twitter account, with more than 131,000 followers. Several years ago, he decided tweeting was a good way to spread his news about our business. At first, his tweets were principally aimed at our colleagues, but his words inevitably started to be picked up by a much wider audience. We have not advertised in the press or on TV for more than 30 years, but James’s Twitter account has become an excellent substitute.
His tweets benefit from being truly personal. They’re snippets from his daily experience, with no hint of any professional public relations company pulling strings in the background. Often supported by a picture or two, James records some of his shop visits, describing star frontline colleagues and a few special customers. It emphasises the vital role people play in our business and the importance of heroic customer service.
Tweets describing his prison visits helped to explain why over 10pc of our recruits are ex-offenders. A recent tweet about Laura’s appointment as our “menopause champion” led to her spending the next three days responding to requests to appear on radio and TV – good news for us and even better news for the menopause lobby.
Fortunately, James has plenty of stories to tell, including our free dry cleaning for customers going for a job interview and birthdays off for every colleague. But when using Twitter, keep your fingers crossed; things have been known to go terribly wrong.
The content is critical. With a limit of 280 characters, every word matters. Always remember that it only takes a second for your message to be passed on to thousands (or even millions) of people. Before pressing “Tweet”, reread your update and check for typos and spelling mistakes. Getting one misplaced letter in words like “shot” and “price” can cause an innocent message to go viral for all the wrong reasons.
Although many tweeters brag about an enormous number of followers, that shouldn’t be the main goal for chief executives. They should always be able to demonstrate that their tweets are good for business. Having said that, I’m pretty sure that a personal tweet from the boss’s desk is much more valuable than any social media created by a marketing agency.
It would be remiss of me to write about social media without mentioning some of the problems it can create. Last year, I was talking to a GP about some of the significant changes she was experiencing in her practice. Without hesitation, she talked about her concern with teenage mental health problems caused by an increased use of social media. It’s a pressing problem for parents who didn’t grow up with Twitter, Facebook, TikTok or Instagram – all platforms that their children now often use in the bedroom, late into the night. As a result of our conversation, we wrote a “Guide to Teenage Mental Health” (free copies are available in most of our shops).
We are continually learning that the tremendous benefits of digital technology come with a few unwelcome consequences. Chief executives as well as teenagers should be on their guard: an army of followers could do more harm than good.
Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson.