Social Media and Leadership Power

Social networks online and offline represent relationships between people, and people capitalize on such connections to perform tasks, from gathering information to enacting political reform. Strong connections can yield higher returns, as strong ties more than weak ties can encourage willingness to help. The more strong ties we have, and the more ties overall we have, in our social network, then the more social or cultural capital we have: that is, the more clout or power we have to complete tasks. People with more clout in a social network often become an opinion leader in that network, or someone that others look to because they value that person’s expertise on a matter.

Think about the opinion leaders in your social networks. Who do you go to for help, and why do you do so, with the following tasks?

  • Choosing a movie to watch?
  • Finding a new place to eat?
  • Buying a new pair of shoes?
  • Picking a college to attend?

Opinion leaders can be passive or active. They can exist for you to go to, or they could push themselves out there for others to listen to. Social media makes both more easily accessible.

Social media are communication technologies that allow anyone to communicate on a large scale with everyone else. Such technologies include blogs (e.g. WordPress, Tumblr), microblogs (e.g. Twitter, Instagram), video sharing and streaming (e.g. YouTube, Twitch) and other online social networking sites. These sites differ from broadcast media (e.g. television, film, radio, newspaper) that traditionally only allowed the few (usually the wealthy or well-connected) to communicate with everyone.

Social media allows any opinion leader to expand into multiple social networks – think YouTubers or Instagram Influencers. Thus, anyone could become a leader in their social network and beyond. At the same time, anyone already a leader can utilize these same technologies to engage specific communities or mass audiences and publics.  

Regardless the type of leader, all leaders should know specific approaches to social media to improve their engagement with their followers, customers, clients, fans, voters, and so forth.

Social Media Relationship Creation and Maintenance

Social media is at its most powerful when it is used to create and maintain relationships between people. Leaders tend to have more capital (i.e. cultural, social, political, economic, educational power), and any leader needs to know how to successfully utilize their capital to build, sustain, and utilize social networks. To do this well, leaders should keep in mind the following defining aspects of social media:

  1. Interactivity
    1. Social media is an interactive medium; that means, it needs to be approached with the understanding that it is give-and-take.
    1. It’s not just about talking to people, but listening to them as well, and which one you do depends on the situation.
  2. Dialogue
    1. Not only is social media interactive, it also should be dialogic.
    1. Dialogues are conversations built on genuine respect for those communicating and a goal for understanding more than persuading.
    1. Being dialogic also means recognizing that no one in that conversation is more important than anyone else.
  3. Community
    1. Each social network can be its own community, or part of a community.
    1. Leaders use social media to engage with a multitude of communities but need to consider which community to target depending on their communication goal.
    1. Once targeted, engagement with the community requires building relationships based on shared interests and the ability to demonstrate how you are a community member. Remembering the interactivity and dialogue aspects helps with this.
  4. Relationships
    1. Relationships are built on similarity and reciprocity.
      1. Being a community member establishes similarity.
      1. Being interactive and dialogic creates reciprocity.
    1. Relationships power social networks.
    1. Because of all this, a leader must focus on creating relationships instead of just informing, selling, and/or entertaining others in the community.
    1. The stronger the relationships, the stronger the ties; the stronger the ties, the more capital; the more capital, the more the leader can achieve.
  5. Emotionality
    1. Reciprocity cannot just be information-based; that is, you cannot just communicate ideas, facts, opinions and so forth to develop relationships.
    1. Genuine dialogue and relationships require emotionality.
    1. Leaders need to be willing to be emotionally open in their communication to develop intimacy with others. The more genuine this intimacy, the stronger the relationship.
    1. While this emotionality can be just a performance, performative emotionality can sour a relationship and undermine a leader’s power if the leader’s true feelings ever become known.

Social Media Crisis Management

Now, even with all of this in mind, and even with the best intentions in place, something can go wrong, quickly and dramatically. A crisis could arise due to social media, or it could be spread on social media; either way, because of how prevalent social media is today, management of that crisis in some way must involve social media. Various academics and professionals recommend following these steps for how to manage crises in this social media world.

  1. Prepare in advance.
    1. Any organization, whether big or small, needs to appoint someone(s) to pay attention to the community’s discussions via social media to understand what is being discussed and how it is being discussed.
    1. Such monitoring allows a crisis management team to discover and address any problem more quickly, potentially reducing its negative impact, as the team is then ready to respond at a moment’s notice.
    1. If you have no team, then as the leader, this task falls upon you, meaning some of your work needs to address this step.
  2. Isolate the origin.
    1. Once a problem is detected, the crisis management team needs to understand the problem’s spread through the community.
    1. This step requires studying on what social networking sites the problem occurs, where it occurred first, and what seemed to initiate the problem.
    1. This analysis helps to understand if the problem is isolated or widespread, and who exactly has been reached and is thus aware of the problem.
  3. Evaluate the impact.
    1. Once the nature and origin of the problem is known, the crisis management team should further understand the problem by analyzing the impact it’s had.
    1. After determining who was affected in the community, the team needs to ascertain how their attitudes were affected; that is, does the community care, and if so, how much, and if a lot, what will they do?
    1. If the problem is impacting your relationship with the community, then you need to understand that nature and size of that impact, as different impacts call for different responses.
  4. Mitigate the crisis.
    1. The last two steps need to be done fast, especially if the problem is widespread and having a serious impact on the community. Only after understanding the problem and its impact can a proper response be implemented to “stop the bleeding.”
    1. Messages need to be disseminated in any communication technology that will help you reach your community. Those messages need to be consistent in tone and content and relatable to the community.
      1. The tone needs to be perceived as genuine and the content needs to contain an admission of fault as well as a presentation of what will be done better.
      1. Memes and other in-group signs can help to establish a common language that can communicate honesty.
    1. The more you can have a crisis management team in place, the more they can strategize necessary responses and improve their ability to draw on such strategies in a timely manner.
  5. Learn from the crisis.
    1. Finally, and potentially most importantly, the crisis management team, in specific, and the organization, in general, need to learn from this experience to understand what worked and what didn’t work in their response.
    1. While there is no guarantee the same, a similar, or a very different problem will occur, a good leader needs to ensure that their team is ready to deal with the next problem in a more efficient and effective manner.
    1. Honest reflection on the experience helps produce better future strategies.

Crisis Management Activity

Social media remains relatively new, especially for older leaders or people who don’t use it personally. So, sometimes, leaders make really bad mistakes with how they use social media to communicate. Such social media faux pas help other leaders understand what to not do, and it is always important for any leader to be willing to admit they were wrong and learn from their mistakes.

So, let’s consider six case studies using these questions:

  • What happened that led to the problem?
  • What happened during the problem?
  • How did the organization’s leader respond?
  • How should the leader have responded?

Collect notes to answer the questions on these case studies:

  1. Daryl Morey, Hong Kong, and anti-government tweet
  2. Amy’s Baking Company, Kitchen Nightmares, and Facebook conspiracies
  3. Domino’s, foul employees, and viral videos
  4. Applebee’s, waitress, and snarky receipt
  5. Wendy’s, Pepe the Frog, and memes
  6. American Apparel, Space Shuttle Challenger, and Tumblr


By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive education on how leaders should use, and not use, social media. Hopefully you will find this information useful for your leadership positions, whatever they may be. I’m always happy to talk through any questions, confusions, concerns, uncertainties you may have, so feel free to email me ( or follow me on Twitter (@MediaOracle).

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