The Connected Leader - Bob Pickard

Michelle: Hello and welcome to the Get Social Connected Leader podcast, where I, Michelle Carvill, interview business leaders around the practicalities of how in this hyper connected digital age they are embracing digital technologies to tune in and connect and communicate. You can find all episodes of the podcast together with show notes via our website,

In this episode of the Get Social Connected Leader Podcast, I'm delighted to interview Bob Pickard. Bob is principal of Signal Leadership Communication Inc., a Toronto-based public relations consultancy, exclusively serving senior executives dealing with digital disruption. In this capacity, he and his partners provide communications counsel to C-suite leaders on image issues, relationships, and reputation. Bob is a well known veteran of the global PR industry, having run consultancy businesses across international markets working in Canada, United States, Korea, Japan, and Singapore. So hi Bob. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.

Bob: It's my pleasure, Michelle.

Michelle: So we have conversed quite a few times on social media. We've been tagged in the same conversations on Twitter. We've been tagged in the same conversations on LinkedIn. You're clearly very active when it comes to being a leader that is utilizing and optimizing these social technologies. So could you give me a little bit of a background as to how you got started?

Bob: I got started in social media when I was the north Asian president of the PR firm, Edelman, and I was based in Tokyo, Japan. At that time, I found that if I shared experiences of my life working in that firm, client activities, staff events, anything to do with the capture of the communications work I was doing, if I shared it on Facebook, and we're talking 2007, 2008 now, I would find that my fellow colleagues working in the global firm would see what we were up to in Japan and they would refer to us more business the more that they had a window on what we were doing in the Tokyo office on Facebook.

And so I thought, "Wow, these people, my colleagues are going to subscribe to our services far more intensely because of what they see that we're doing here. They have confidence in us and they know who we are through our sharing on social," and this was in the very early days of Facebook. And at that time, like most companies, we had a corporate intranet and it became very clear in a short period of time that far, far more people were moved by what we were sharing on Facebook than what we were sharing on the corporate intranet. And I thought that was very curious and at that point I realized the power of this thing to influence people and to make them feel a close connection to you, even though they may not have had any previous introduction, which I found very interesting.

Michelle: Yeah, and that's interesting that it was your people, it was more your colleagues rather than the promotional aspect of Facebook that really triggered that connection. That's come through on a few of the podcasts actually and a few of the interviews, the internal use of social technologies as a kind of social glue keeping organizations together and people finding their own way with the tech rather than being conformed to what the organization is saying you need to utilize. So, that's interesting that was your starting point.

Bob: Well, social cuts across the boundaries. If you can tell me where the line is today between internal communication and external communication, then I'll certainly be impressed because I think that's become a rather unclear dividing line if indeed there is any demarcation anymore. And being in the PR business, and I do approach social technologies from a public relations perspective, I have a professional obligation and a duty to know this stuff. And so whether it's Facebook in 2007 or Twitter in 2008, I've had to get my hands dirty and know this in my bones so that my clients could have confidence that when I give them advice at a senior level, they know that I'm social savvy and could give them some feeling about what to expect if they invest in online marketing or in building relationships as part of the corporate communication function through social media.

Michelle: So what friction, Bob, would you say you've come up against over the years? I mean, I know what I've come up against when I've spoken to organizations and particularly at the leadership level, there still is fear. There still is friction. What have you seen and evidenced over the years and experienced? What's been that shift? Do you feel there's been a shift since that time to where we are now? Is it more readily embraced that people know that they need to be utilizing these social technologies, whether internally or externally? What's your view on that?

Bob: I would say that fear is the key feeling around this and it's behind a lot of different things. For example, I think a lot of CEOs or top executives have been afraid or rather timid about communicating on social media because they've been fearful of making a mistake which could limit their career chances or in some way harm the organization.

Now, I think there has been a shift, to your question. I think there is still fear, but the fear is now more increasingly about what happens if our company encounters a crisis situation or some problem which the public wants us to communicate about and I'm not on social media. That fear, the fear of being absent when something bad happens, I think is no more acute than the fear of being there and making a mistake, and that's a real turning point in my opinion.

Michelle: That is. In your line of work then, you're helping leaders, organizations, I mean, in just the same way that you would, from a, let's say, old-fashioned, traditional PR because this is now traditional PR, but pre-social technologies, you would've been there advising reputation management, what people say in those situations. This is the same that's happening now through social technologies.

Bob: Well, sure. And pre-social media, we corporate communicators were under the illusion that somehow we controlled that reputation, which our activities were designed to manage. And now of course it's very clear that it's the public, it's the mass constituency of people who use social media. They are the ones who determined what your reputation is going to be. And it's, I think, very important for companies to realize that there's a difference between their image, which is the everyday sharing of impressions in the now of social media, and the sum total of all these things, all these shares, all these comments, all these engagements online over a long period of time, which tends to create reputation, which is not an overnight thing. So this shift of power from the company that has the illusion of control to the mass audience, people who co-create the reality of a company's reputation over a period of time, this has radically transformed the PR consulting business worldwide.

Michelle: Yeah. I mean, that raises a number of points, doesn't it, around the balance of control, because in my experience and from the research that I did when I was writing Get Social, the consumer behavior, this belief-driven buyer, they're more concerned about their values being aligned with organizations where their values match and they believe that organizations solve more ills than governments or should solve more ills than governments. So in some respects, there's more responsibility, isn't there, on organizations?

Bob: Well, they have to act with more of a sense of connectivity with the people they have relationships with online. These people aren't just people who are online just for the heck of it, in a casual or uninterested way. I would say that most companies, even B2B concerns with very sort of niche orientations in the marketplace, they are surprised all the time by the large number of people online who have a relationship with them and believe at scale that they themselves have an individual relationship with the companies through social media, whether or not in the analog world that is verifiably the case.

So if they feel they have this relationship with the company, then the company sure has to be able to communicate with them. And the number one problem I see for most companies is that they regard social media in too many cases as about a marketing channel designed to sell stuff to people, like television or something, when really it's about managing relationships. I think a lot of companies still have not figured that out, sadly.

Michelle: Yeah, I'm with you. And I think that managing relationships as much as it's about managing those relationships, because you're absolutely right, as consumers there is that investment, isn't there? They are investing their time. They are invested into the brand and believe in those relationships and want those relationships to be reciprocated. But there's also the connection, not just with your external customers and your external kind of stakeholders, but also with your own team, your own employees, that connection with, as I refer to them, the internal customers. That connection is often missing in organizations as well, isn't it?

Bob: Well, I think it's clearly an area for development for many companies. A lot of the incoming next generation of CEOs intuitively grasp what it is that you're getting at here. It's the more mature constituency of people who didn't grow up in this new world who represent a development opportunity for consultants such as myself and others who are here to help them understand that they don't live in this top down corporate monologue world of control where it's like a one way communication to a mass audience of consumers who are passively expected just to sit there and receive information. It's a horizontal, peer-to-peer, mutually satisfying exchange of information that we're aiming at here.

There's been one really important new development I think in the past few months. Edelman, with their global trust barometer, they've come out with a survey across many different countries ... I just tweeted about this a few weeks ago ... finding that worldwide across all the major economies they surveyed, 63% of the people now say that CEOs should regularly communicate directly to the public on social media. That's up 11 points since last year. So now we have not just majority support for social CEOs, we're closing in on two thirds support for this happening. And that is a real shift. So what we're talking about today, that's in the vanguard, I think of this new trend that's breaking through now.

Michelle: Yeah. It's almost not optional, is it? I mean, we say, "Oh, the new CEO's coming through, the fresher, the younger, the millennials are going to come in and change everything." But realistically, like you say, that's a big number. And these technologies, when we talk about business strategy, I mean, business strategy, digital strategy, they are so inextricably linked. Social technologies are a big enabler of digital strategy. So it's not something that CEOs and C-suites should be ignoring or not wanting to get involved with because these are engines, aren't they? These are tools to enable them to facilitate ongoing success.

Bob: Well, I think part of the problem here is that a lot of the executives, and I wouldn't want to pick on any particular professions, but we often see this with lawyers or with engineers and sometimes with doctors. They are not wired through their upbringing in school and then later in corporate life to grasp the fluidity or the spontaneity or the nowness, if you will, of what we're discussing.

I think I've seen this kind of change in the PR business. I mean, it used to be that we had interval communication where companies and their leaders would schedule well in advance, a predetermined date sometimes, the sharing of information with the public, like a press conference or the issuance of a news release, whereas now, what the CEO says or does is always within the capture radius of social media and it's almost impossible now to devise communications, plans, that have timelines, which list or outline activities, which actually happened the way that you think they are, because as you know, Michelle, on social, you just vary a few words here and there or you use this picture and not that picture or even just vary the punctuation a bit, and something that was not selling well or moving quickly on social suddenly becomes viral or it's something they've done wrong and it blows up in their face unexpectedly.

So how do you plan for some of these things? It's very hard. And yet at the same time, a lot of companies, they still have these old crisis communications manuals gathering dust on their shelves or on the corporate intranet, and they've never actually conducted a simulation using social media role playing or simulation that takes into account what could happen on Twitter, for example.

Michelle: Yeah. Yeah. And you mentioned earlier, Bob, about the line between communications, the line between this. What about the line between, because this is another challenge that I hear a lot of pushback on is that I don't want my personal life to be all over social media. I mean, some people are very comfortable to be the show man or the show woman, shall we say, but some people aren't. So they don't want their life all over that. And there is this balance or perceived balance of their business life and their professional life. Have you come up against this, Bob? Is this something that you've seen more fear around?

Bob: Yeah, I think people are trying to figure out how much of who they really are that they should share and frame in a way that people see in public. And I find that there's no one size fit all. I will sit down with various executives and we'll discuss what topics they want to share or what aspects of their lives they are comfortable having in the public domain. But some people would be far more inclined to be sort of arms length or rather careful or not too specific about how they made themselves feel about something, whereas other people, they want to show every emotion, every feeling, every twitch, almost like they are at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum where they want to share too much. So there are people who want to share too much and there are people who don't want to share enough and getting that right is where coaches and consultants can help some of these people communicate well, and to be on social media just to use the social technology is not the same thing as being an effective communicator.

Michelle: No. And what do you mean by that, Bob? Just let's dig a little bit into that.

Bob: Well, I think if a CEO were to think, "Oh, well, I've got to be a social CEO now," and they start to just tweet or to use LinkedIn posts, they may or may not have a feeling or a sense of what's appropriate in terms of how they say things, when they say them, how much to share, how much personal information to put out there. And so in many cases, what I have found is that they can benefit from a coach or a communications advisor who can help them understand what the content preferences of the audience that they're communicating with should be, who can help them understand frequency, understand appropriateness. That's a good word to get the feeling across here. They may lack that sense on their own, or they lose perspective.

Michelle: Yes. I think that's valid. I have seen with lots of enthusiasm, "Oh yeah, I'm going to take to this and get going." They all know somebody needs to be holding their hand and making sure that this is optimized, for want of a better word.

Bob: Well, I think a lot of the executives I work with will be surprised when they realize there's almost a planned obsolescence to the services I provide, because I'm helping them understand how to do this effectively, just having been around the block. Like a lot of executives, I've learned some lessons the hard way myself and I've seen clients learn lessons the hard way through making mistakes. So if I can help some of these folks avoid that and start to learn by looking at the analytics, looking at what people respond to, what they react to and what they don't react to, then they develop a feeling for themselves and having been well-coached, they can effortlessly just do it themselves and away they go.

Michelle: Absolutely. It is. It's kind of getting into the swing of things, isn't it, so that you understand what works and what and what doesn't, listening to those signals. There's probably people listening to this or some of them will be already engaged, some of them will be keen to start out. Some people won't know where to start. What would you say to somebody? What advice, to give some practicality, what advice would you say? Because I know from my experience, some people will say, "Okay, well, I need to be on LinkedIn and I need to be on Facebook," it's kind of like, you know what? You need to do this on your terms and it's got to feel right for you and it's got to be authentic for you. You can't completely have a personality shift. This isn't what this is about. This is about making it work in a way that works for you. So what advice would you say to somebody who was starting out?

Bob: I would say to look and learn and to be a listener before you start talking. There is this misconception that communicating is about just talking. But of course, I think if somebody wants to start using social media and they're a bit apprehensive or inexperienced, they should have accounts on these different platforms, which may be there for watching or for listening, and then they can determine which of the different social media platforms might make sense for them.

Now, I've been doing this long enough and of course you're an expert in this space too. I find it very straightforward to go into a situation and to look at an executive, consider their company's business, and confidently advise them, "Okay. You know what? I think you should be on LinkedIn and communicate on Twitter. But really I don't think you should be doing this on Facebook," for example. And a lot of companies and a lot of clients, they may not have that same perspective.

I'm also finding more and more that if you can introduce the executives to some of these different platforms with pros and cons, tell them how they should use these different social media networks, then they will themselves be able to make a decision over time that fits well. I find Instagram interesting in this regard because it's so easy for anybody to pick up and start using. I've seen a lot of executives, a lot of clients, that are sort of off to the races already using Instagram, especially if they take good pictures and they like to use their smartphone, then okay. I find if they're happy using that and they're comfortable using it, that's a good entry point to their use of social for leadership communication.

Michelle: It's a kind of perfect starting point, Instagram really, isn't it? Because it's harmless in many ways. It's not as political as Twitter and it's not as connected, for want of a better word, as LinkedIn, in the professional sense. So it has at this moment got that freer vibe around it.

Bob: At this moment is correct. Who knows what it's going to be like a year from now?

Michelle: Yeah, it'll change. It all keeps evolving. It's so funny. In fact, today, somebody asked me about, "Oh, do you remember that donut infographic that used to be around saying that Instagram is for taking pictures of me with my friends or to show me eating a donut," and I think it was so funny that somebody sent me the infographic and it's all so changed, talking about Google Plus, talking about Instagram for taking vintage photos, because of course when it started it was all about the old kind of Polaroid shots and filters, which I totally forgot that even happened on Instagram when it started, but of course it did. So things are changing all the time. You have been utilizing these channels, like me, for such a long time. What's your biggest learning so far would you say? Is there anything that you wish you'd known at the outset that would have made life simpler that you could share?

Bob: Yes. Well, there's a mistake that I made and a recurring pattern of mistakes that I made. In the early days, earlier days of Twitter for example, although I did the same on Facebook, I would often, when I was in Asia, I would post my everyday travels, meeting with colleagues in different markets. So I would go to China, India, Indonesia, whatever, and I would share what was going on with my work there. But a lot of my audience was still back in North America where I'm from. To me, that was just my life, the way I was living it then, but to them I was off gallivanting in some exotic, foreign context. I'd be in Bali or Phuket or some tropical, mysteriously alluring oasis of some kind. What I didn't realize then is that what I was sharing might've come across to them like boasting, or maybe they felt envious. Maybe they wouldn't have minded being on the road in these places, too.

And so I have, I have seen some people who are late to social media, senior people, former politicians, for example, senior executives, and then if they're new, then suddenly they start using the features on Facebook where it shows the map and the dotted line and you're traveling from one world capital to another, and I just think that rubs people the wrong way. And I know it because that's what I did seven or eight years ago.

Michelle: Yeah. Good. So, be mindful of that then, everybody, that it could be ... I mean, if there's a purpose for doing that, if there is intent and it's got a purpose that you're doing that, then great. But like you say, without a structural story around it, it could come across as like you say, boasting and rub the wrong way. So, there is that planning aspect to things, isn't there, to a degree?

Bob: Well, you're right. I mean, it's not all sort of on the back of an envelope or just as you think about it. You really should have a plan. You should have a strategy. It's not something that's designed to hoodwink people or to trick them into something. This is just a sensible strategy where you share yourself at your best so that people will be able to tune into your frequency online and have a positive relationship with you.

Michelle: Absolutely.

Bob: Social media is such an emotionally charged form of media. I think that feelings like anger, like envy, jealousy, the positive emotions, too, a lot of these feelings are understudied and still we're learning our way right now. For example, toxic anger in politics, the increase of polarization, people seeing the lives of those who have more than they do and thinking, "I'm just as good as them, and they will listen to me and if they don't, well, I'm going to show them. I'm going to show them at election time or when the referendum comes." This is heading into a new territory that I don't think we all have the answer to yet. And things are changing fast. It's [crosstalk 00:28:06].

Michelle: It's social science, isn't it?

Bob: Exactly. Exactly.

Michelle: It is. It's interesting. So, if you were to give one piece of advice, what would it be?

Bob: Well, for a leader communicating on social media, I would advise transparency and authenticity and a candor, but not excessive, overly promiscuous sharing, if you will. I think this all adds up to me advising a we and us orientation in terms of how you should approach social media rather than a me or I way of looking at it. And here I think my Asian experience has informed my perspective because in some Asian countries, Japan, for example, social media, the technology is the same as in western countries, but people use social to talk more about the we, not about the me, whereas in the western countries, which are far more individualistic, there's a different feeling there. I find almost that the most effective people on social media in western countries are those who communicate Asian, if you will, the ones who do have a sense of community, not just of self.

Michelle: It's keeping it inclusive, isn't it?

Bob: Well, yeah. And everyone has a voice. One of the things I like about social media is that it's a great convening place for all sorts of people from across every segment of society with whom you may not have had any past connection, and so it's a way to learn, especially when it comes to seeing things from the perspective of other people who could be pensioners who once worked for your company or who could be the employees who work for the firm or who could be investors prospectively thinking of buying more stock. And people who live in countries or have certain ways that you can't even possibly imagine because you've never lived life in their shoes before, that's the wonderful thing about social media.

Michelle: I agree. I agree wholeheartedly. So, wonderful, Bob. So many insightful aspects there, so thank you so much for sharing your experience, your insights. I like to end with a few quick fire questions. They're quite big questions, but we'll just go top of the head.

Bob: Sure, okay.

Michelle: So, whatever comes in. They're kind of quick fire. So I'm going to find these out for you. Are you okay with that?

Bob: I'll do my best to meet your needs here.

Michelle: Fantastic. Okay. So if you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

Bob: The collective ignorance or ostrich head in the sand on climate change, and there of course social media has a big role to play in changing that.

Michelle: Yup. Brilliant. And that has come up a couple of times. It's a hot topic on all of our minds. And which book have you read recently that's inspired you?

Bob: I'm reading a book called Honest Signals published by MIT. I was in Boston back in March, and I saw this in the MIT bookstore. It's about how social cues are shared between people in a way that should send us signals that indicate that a person may be perceived as a leader who does certain things and you look at the behavior of persuasion and that I find a really interesting read, actually, that totally is in tune with social media.

Michelle: That is one for the list. I'll make sure the links to that are in the show notes, as well, for anybody else who's interested in that. And last but not least, what's the best piece of advice you have been given to date?

Bob: To not send it immediately, not to post immediately, to give it time to marinade, to consider. I find that especially in back and forths with people, including adversaries or critics, people can get carried away by the emotions of the moment. So yes, social media is about sentiment and feeling and all that, but there should still be some logic there and some perspective. So take a deep breath, pause and then communicate. Just don't be pressured into, angry exchanges, which may not serve your interests.

Michelle: I love that. It's a kind of sleep on it piece, isn't it?

Bob: Absolutely.

Michelle: Absolutely. Brilliant. So Bob, thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for your insights. I've thoroughly enjoyed our chat. I hope you have, too, and it's been really great to have you on the podcast.

Bob: Well, many thanks, Michelle. The feeling is mutual, and I've had a great time talking with you now.

Michelle: You've been listening to the Get Social Connected Leader podcast. Thank you to my guest and indeed thank you to you for tuning in. Please do feel free to share the podcast with colleagues and friends who you think will enjoy it and indeed subscribe to tune in for more episodes. You'll find the podcast on all the usual platforms, and all episodes are also on our website, You'll also find some really useful digital and social resources on that site too, so be sure to check those out.

So for now, from me, Michelle Carvill, your host on the podcast, thank you so much for tuning in and goodbye. Oh, PS, if you're a business leader with something to share around digital and social technologies, and you're keen to be a guest on the podcast, then I'd love to hear from you. You can email me