The association blogosphere is full of venting about the lack of inspiration, creativity and chutzpah at the top of the leadership ladder. I suppose I’m guilty of that too — it’s sometimes easier to find things to bitch about than things to celebrate.

That’s why I love writing this series of posts about the social CEOs of the association world, like Scott Becker, the executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). These CEOs are passionate about social media because they see its positive influence on their daily work and their members’ lives. Scott’s leadership and example has encouraged his staff and members to use social media, particularly Twitter, as a tool to learn, connect with others, and share success stories and public health information with the public and press.

About three years ago, Scott started using Facebook and Twitter regularly, “but not obsessively,” he notes. He and his COO were interested in social media for APHL too, but they knew they couldn’t develop and execute a strategy by themselves. They hired a full-time social media specialist, and now, APHL has active Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube accounts.

Even better, at least 39 APHL staffers are active on Twitter. Scott says, “Over half of our staff tweeters are senior-level staff — that might surprise you! We encourage staff at all levels (not interns) to participate in social media for both exchanging relevant information and professional development.”

APHL’s social media policy is “quite liberal,” according to Scott.

“We just ask that they (staff) have separate work and personal Twitter accounts and that they adjust Facebook settings to keep their personal profiles private. I have the same expectations of staff on social media as I do when they’re representing the association in person. In the three years we’ve been on social media, there has never been an issue.”

Social media: part of a larger strategic communications plan

Scott first became interested in social media because he thought it would be an effective way to bring APHL’s voice to the public. “We know our members’ work is life saving and helps prevent disease and disability. But, let’s face it, we are governmental labs and sometimes it’s tough to get your arms around what goes on in the lab.”

When APHL started using social media, their original goals were “to put a real face and a more relatable voice on the work of our members, connect with people, and share what good things go on in our member labs.” Scott says their goals haven’t changed, but their tactics and the amount of time they spend on social media have. “Hiring a full-time staff person to focus on social media changed things entirely for us.”

At first, APHL didn’t have a social media strategy in writing, but now they have an evolving strategy and a supportive board.  “We introduced social media to our board as part of our larger strategic communications plan that the board adopts every three years.” He feels fortunate because APHL has “a very forward thinking board that encourages experimentation and supports our quality improvement efforts. It’s in their DNA as lab leaders and spills over to the association.” 

APHL does share a challenge with other associations whose members are government employees. “Many of the state governments for which they work do not permit using social media on state-issued computers or phones. So while we educate our board and members about the value of social media, many aren’t able to participate even if they wanted to.”

Personal and professional: intrinsically linked

“I started out my social media journey thinking I was going to keep everything separate. It was hard work to keep the divide. Once I sat and thought about it, I quickly realized that my personal and professional lives are intrinsically linked. I felt freer on social media once I came to that conclusion.”

Even on his personal Facebook page, he posts public health updates a few times a week to keep his friends and family in the know. “I’ll post on foodborne outbreaks and recalls, influenza issues, pet food recalls, and warm and wonderful stories about babies that have been saved by newborn screening tests done in our labs.” He says his circle of friends value those updates because they’re from a trusted source. 

Scott doesn’t seek out work-related Facebook friends. “I’ve accepted members who wanted to friend me on Facebook, but only if I’d be friends with them outside of work.” Friending staff is a trickier issue. “I know from a risk perspective it’s best to not friend, but we do have privacy settings to help sort through which posts are seen.”

The benefits of being a social CEO

Scott has advice for association executives who say they don’t have time for social media.

“It’s imperative for the CEO to be engaged in social media. It’s part of the strategic communications fabric of any organization worth its salt. You wouldn’t balk at having a website, right? Social media is taking that one step farther. There is an expectation that a CEO be somewhat public, right? Why not be public from your tablet or smartphone? It has to be thoughtful and strategic – and that’s why the board hired you.”

Because of his social media activity, Scott has developed new contacts with the press. On Twitter he’s earned notice for APHL from the director of the CDC, state and local politicians, ABC news personalities, and an unlikely supporter, says Scott: “Morgan Fairchild, the actress, who is very into emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorism! So extending my voice has been one benefit.”

Scott sets the standard for his staff through both his personal account and APHL’s channels. “We can and should let people know about the work of our members, staff and programs, and greater public health or healthcare issues.” His staff is “on the same wavelength” as him – they know when there’s new public health lab information, it needs to get out to the public.

“I hope my personal use, through encouragement and paving the way, has been a positive organizational influence. We get very psyched as a group when we have a social media “win” and we even celebrate together. We’re very forward thinking when it comes to technology in the office. We embraced telecommuting, video conferencing, and instant messaging long ago. Social media is yet another form of staying in touch.”

A day in the life of a social CEO

Scott uses Hootsuite to monitor Twitter, keeping it open on his desktop so he can glance at it throughout the day. He starts the day by checking the news on Twitter. “It’s my preferred way to learn of weather, traffic and breaking news.” He advises CEOs to not follow thousands of people: “You will never sort through the mess!” After checking Twitter, he heads to Facebook to post anything relevant from his Twitter feed.

At lunch, he checks Twitter and Facebook to share, retweet or reply to anything new. He checks again in mid-afternoon, but only posts if he has something relevant or interesting to share. “No one really cares what you had for lunch! This is when I share new APHL blog posts with my networks.” And in the evening, he checks in again. He says, “It’s not that hard. I’m sure others have said this…just do it!”

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer who appreciates the time that social CEOs, like Scott Becker, have spent sharing their advice about social media. If you know of a social CEO for future posts, please let me know.