Why Leading Charity CEO Mark Atkinson uses Twitter

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In my latest #SocialCEO interview I spoke to Mark Atkinson, the cricket-loving Chief Executive of Scope, one of the UK’s largest charities for disabled people. Unusually for a CEO, Mark isn’t on LinkedIn but prefers Twitter as his social network of choice.

Mark, why did you sign up for Twitter? Did you have any reservations or preconceptions before you signed up?

I suppose I signed up for a few reasons.

Firstly, Twitter is without doubt the best way to get news and see what others are saying. Everyone who uses Twitter knows that news hits your timeline long before it makes it to any other news outlet, so it’s a great way to stay up to date with breaking news and opinion.

Secondly, it’s an invaluable way to see what our supporters, staff, volunteers and disabled people more generally are saying.

Finally, I wanted somewhere to share information about what I am up to and focused on. Now, that might not be of interest to some people – it’s primarily Scope and cricket – but I think it’s important to be open and accessible. I do also answer questions, queries and complaints that come via Twitter.

“With Twitter, news hits your timeline long time before it makes it to any other news outlet, so it’s a great way to stay up to date with breaking news and opinion”

I didn’t have any preconceptions about how I’d use Twitter really, but I’ve learnt that sometimes you need to be a bit thick skinned and have some perspective!

What do you get out of it and what do you think Scope gets out of you being on Twitter?

I get to stay in touch with people we work with and our staff much more easily. I like to hear about the work that we’re doing right across the organisation and get to engage with staff really quickly without having to worry about getting time in diaries. I’m really proud of the team I lead. They do some amazing things and are passionate enough to shout about it from the rooftops on Twitter.

The real benefit to Scope is that I hope we come across as a real organisation, not a faceless corporation. The Scope team is a collection of people who come together because we believe in driving social change and chasing down everyday inequality. We want to make a difference and we want to change the world. I hope our supporters get a real sense of our passion from our social content, be that on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or other channels.

Do you have any particular Twitter strategy?

Not at all! I certainly don’t plan what I want to say on Twitter for the week ahead and a lot of what I talk about is about my personal life – my family, my love of cricket or my travels. The only thing that I think matters is that you’re authentic and you do your best to be yourself. If you stick to that rule, you can’t go far wrong.

I’m assuming you do all your own tweets?

Absolutely. Although I’m sure that might make my Communications Team nervous at times!

Before becoming Scope’s CEO you were Director of External Affairs, responsible for communications and marketing. Has this comms background influenced how you operate and perhaps made it easier to embrace the ‘Social CEO’ role?

I hope so. I sometimes think that people overthink social media. At the end of the day, it’s just another platform to get your message out. You might have to be a bit more concise, but as long as your content is interesting and the work you’re doing is making a difference, people will listen and give you a fair hearing. For me, the message matters more than anything.

“The purse strings on public expenditure continue to tighten, exposing new needs in our society. Life is tough for disabled people. Public trust in charities is falling. There are huge pressures on fundraising. Growing scrutiny and demands for transparency – and criticism of charities in the media” – That’s from an article in Civil Society News about recent staff cuts and reduced income at Scope. From this viewpoint I’d imagine it’s more important than ever for you, as the CEO, to be open and transparent and get your point of view across on social media. What’s your opinion?

The last few years have certainly been tough for the charity sector and Scope definitely hasn’t been immune from that. But rather than just accept that things are tough, we’ve made some pretty radical decisions to change how we operate and what we do. We launched a bold and radical strategy in April 2017 which will transform what we do and how we do it.

“If we tell our story in the right way and are clear about what we’re trying to achieve, people will support that. I hope I can play my part in speaking loudly and clearly about our ambitions”

Change is never easy but it is necessary. I want people to be passionate about what we do and to understand why we’re changing, so I certainly think that I have a responsibility to help make that case. I think it can sometimes be a balance – people won’t always agree with what we’re doing, and that’s okay. But for the vast majority of people, if we tell our story in the right way and are clear about what we’re trying to achieve, they’ll support that. I hope I can play my part in speaking loudly and clearly about our ambitions.

Following on from the question above, do you think it’s now part of a Chief Executive’s role to be an organization’s ‘Chief Storyteller’? Should social media engagement now be on every CEOs job description?

I think that’s certainly a big part of my role. My biggest buzz in the job is getting to go out and meet supporters and staff and tell them what we’re doing, how we’re changing and the difference we’re making. Whether that’s face to face or on social media, that narrative matters and people rightly expect their work and their contribution to be recognised.

However, I wouldn’t say that it should be added to every Chief Executive’s job description. As I’ve said, being a leader is about being authentic. If Twitter or social media more generally doesn’t work for you, it will show. If you get it wrong because it’s not your natural skill you could end up doing more harm than good to your reputation.

Just because someone can’t or won’t tweet doesn’t mean they won’t be a great leader in other ways.

Bearing in mind that the CEO is often the one in the firing line, do you have any sympathy with CEOs who are afraid of Twitter? Can you understand their reluctance to stick their heads above the parapet, or do they need to get over it and accept that this is the nature of modern leadership?

I do have some sympathy with this. Criticism can be hard and social media can sometimes be quite wearing. For a few people there seems to be this belief that, that just because you’re behind a computer, you can say things that you’d never dream of saying in the real world. That’s not acceptable.

But largely I think people do give you a fair hearing and, even if they don’t agree with you, will listen to your point of view and respect you for being honest and for engaging in debate. And if you believe in what you’re doing and you can show the impact of your work, then you shouldn’t be afraid of talking about it in public just because a few people might not agree.

How do you deal with criticism on Twitter?

Of course it’s never nice to be on the receiving end of criticism. I actually find it easier if the criticism is directed at me personally rather than Scope. I firmly believe that nobody is bigger than the organisation and so I really don’t like unfair criticism of it. But I’d say that for every negative tweet, there are dozens of positive ones, interesting stories and inspiring things to hear about and engage with.

I’m also really proud of the work I do and that we all do at Scope, so I’m always happy to go out to bat to champion the organisation and the work we do.

What do you think are the biggest challenges (and opportunities) for charity CEOs to tap into social media – and Twitter specifically?

I’d say time! Being a Chief Executive is a busy role, so making sure you take the time to engage on social media can be challenging. But if you can make the time, it’s worth it.

“Disabled people are all too often overlooked or absent from our media, so the fact that social media gives people a platform to talk about their lives, their struggles and their ambitions is hugely important”

For me it’s about seeing what other people are saying. Getting the chance to hear disabled people’s voices is so important. Disabled people are all too often overlooked or absent from our media, so the fact that social media gives people a platform to talk about their lives, their struggles and their ambitions is hugely important. That’s what I really value.

What role does your Huffington Post blog play in your leadership role?

Twitter and social media is great but you do sometimes need a bit more than 140 characters to talk about what can be quite complicated issues. Being able to blog on Huffington Post and other platforms allows me to really talk about the issues that matter to disabled people and to help raise awareness. It’s always important to remember that disabled people are still hugely underrepresented in the media and in the press. So anything we can do to reach people with that message and to talk about the issues is a good thing.

I notice you don’t have a LinkedIn account. Why is that?

I might be a bit old fashioned, but I’ve always thought that LinkedIn was just for people looking for a new job. I’m certainly not. I’m very happy with the role I have at Scope thanks!

Have you considered taking the next step and signing up for Instagram – or even Snapchat – to better engage with a younger audience? And what about Facebook? – it’s the most popular social network of all.

I can’t say that I use SnapChat or Instagram. I suppose I’d just come back to my earlier point – it’s about being authentic. If you’re authentic that will shine through, otherwise it can be a bit cringeworthy. I don’t want to be a middle aged dad trying to be cool on SnapChat – I want to talk in a way that I enjoy and that works for me. I do have a Facebook account but rarely look at it!

More broadly, how do you think the role of leaders of non-profit organizations has changed/will have to change as social media becomes more ingrained in society?

I think it has changed drastically and social media is a part of that. The sector is facing unique pressures, from funding squeezes to more competition within the sector, than ever before. For me, the biggest trend – and social media is a big part of this – is the need for organisations to be more open and transparent. Supporters rightly want to know how their time and donations are making a difference. We won’t keep our supporters with us unless we can demonstrate that. Social media is a great tool to do that and I think will only grow in importance as people rightly demand more and more from charities.

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Huge thanks to Mark for taking part in this interview. It’s always fascinating to find out why senior leaders make the decisions they do – and decisions about their use of social media are particularly interesting. We usually think of LinkedIn, for example, as the ‘professional’ social network, yet Mark sees no real value in it – and he’s not the first CEO I’ve interviewed to spurn LinkedIn. That’s an interesting fact in itself. Perhaps Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn’s CEO) should be asking himself why some CEOs would rather use Twitter than LinkedIn.