The Data Story of Ukraine, Russia and Corporate Responses

Michael White is a Senior Consultant and Ana Rocha is an Associate at Kekst CNC. This post is based on their Kekst CNC memorandum. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes The Illusory Promise of Stakeholder Governance by Lucian A. Bebchuk and Roberto Tallarita (discussed on the Forum here); For Whom Corporate Leaders Bargain (discussed on the Forum here) and Stakeholder Capitalism in the Time of COVID (discussed on the Forum here), both by Lucian Bebchuk, Kobi Kastiel, and Roberto Tallarita; and Restoration: The Role Stakeholder Governance Must Play in Recreating a Fair and Sustainable American Economy – A Reply to Professor Rock (discussed on the Forum here) by Leo E. Strine, Jr.

The first quarter of 2022 presented a challenging communications terrain for business leaders as the Russian invasion of Ukraine shook markets, shattered supply chains and shocked the world. Within hours, it was clear that big businesses would have a huge role to play; what they did—and what they said about what they were doing—would shape the contours of the conflict.

For the leaders of the FTSE100 companies, the world indeed was watching.

Now, new analysis from Kekst CNC’s insights team reveals the data story of Ukraine, Russia, and corporate responses—and in doing so discloses a dramatic shift in executive communications.

Kekst CNC’s FTSE100 CEO Social Tracker analyzes all posts published by CEOs on their personal LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. In this second edition, we evaluated 302 posts across LinkedIn and Twitter from 1st January 2022 to 31st March 2022. We found that compared to the first edition of the report, the FTSE100 CEO social rankings have changed significantly, including new CEOs who are defining their own executive communications strategies.

Data tells a story

The data reveals that the Ukraine crisis served as a social media reset for all CEOs. Executives went silent, with landmark company announcements being the only exceptions. The report reveals the following:

1. CEO posts dipped sharply in March

With the humanitarian crisis unfolding, ‘business-as-usual’ executive communications activity were set in sharp relief, and CEOs reduced their activity following the invasion. In a globalized world, Russian-linked business operations are a fact of life for global corporations, but for many of those companies’ business strategies changed. In some instances, a “pause” later led to major announcements of divestment.

2. Fourteen FTSE100 CEOs took a leadership position

Of those CEOs who took a proactive and public leadership position during the crisis, 60% used first-person language in balancing their personal and business perspectives. Some 80% of the posts were emotive, using phrases like “shocked and saddened” and “horrified” to describe their reactions to the events. Unifying all posts was a clear directive on how the CEOs were responding to the crisis, varying from humanitarian support to ceasing operations in Russia.

3. Comments were mostly neutral

Negative responses to CEO posts almost always criticized the company, rather than the CEO directly. Often adverse reactions tended to occur in the case of companies with operations in Russia that hadn’t been publicly addressed. Mostly, feedback to CEO posts was neutral: comparing negative comments received by CEOs before and after the Ukraine crisis shows little change.

Lessons to learn

While our analysis focused narrowly on social media activity, the lessons as applied to managing reputational challenges are broader and more sweeping:

Be aware: Monitoring ongoing social media is a must, just as scrutinizing mainstream media monitoring is requisite. Especially in a time of crisis, it’s important to understand the audience breakdown on social media and the reactions that are coming through. These are what your investors, your employees, your partners, and your consumers are seeing and hearing. It is what must inform your business strategy and communications strategy.

Be transparent: Corporate websites, mainstream media, and a Google search will inform the public of your business operations. Manage the conversation by recognizing the situation and taking leadership. Transparently share the business response and plan of action, even if a decision hasn’t been fully decided.

Be personal: In a crisis that provoked an emotional response from every corner of society, leaders’ responses need to mirror those emotions. In communicating, CEOs must present their personal perspective and emotional reaction first, and the business’s response second.

Be conversational: Not every comment calls for a rejoinder, but if a remark raises a challenging point that can be addressed in a positive way, seize the day. Real leaders know to first listen than talk. On social media, an astute response may hold off a ranking comment from spreading disinformation.

Ignore algorithms: The FTSE100 CEO Social Tracker reveals the types of content that ranks highly, but in a crisis, words and actions matter most. Leaders should steer clear of hashtags: Text-based updates are best, and length allows them to present a measured approach. Most importantly, avoid having the crisis perceived as a promotional opportunity.

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