The Invisible Female Workforce Behind the Social CEO

"Thought leadership" involves a far vaster and more complex labor system than first appears.

by Alina Heim on September 8th, 2016

CEOs with great online presences have quietly become the new rockstars of the meme-flooded Internet age. At the time of publication, T-Mobile CEO John Legere has 2.9 million followers on his personal Twitter account — more than three times that of the official T-Mobile account. He’s loose, he’s likable, and he ends his Twitter bio with #IAmBatman. There’s Sophia Amoruso, Nasty Girl CEO and self-proclaimed #GIRLBOSS, boasting an impressive 390K following on Instagram alone — a modern feminist icon for myself and many in my demographic. And we can’t forget Mark Zuckerberg, whose Facebook following currently stands at a cool 37.2 million. But last week I came across an interesting article that changed my perception on how critically I should be reading the social feeds of my favorite CEOs.

Recently, data scientist David Robinson analyzed the entirety of Donald Trump’s official Twitter account, distinguishing between content written by the candidate himself and that written by his staff. Robinson found that tweets coming from Trump’s phone used “about 40-80% more words related to disgust, sadness, fear, anger, and other ‘negative’ sentiments”, while his younger staffers stuck to more positive campaign hashtags. Of course, he isn’t the only politician who uses millennial workers to help craft his brand. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama aren’t strangers to the practice, though they definitely go the more transparent route, signing their personal tweets by a simple initial at the end.

So, where is the rest of the content coming from? It’s being outsourced. Just like the career of ghostwriting has never been secret, neither is social media work. Far from it, actually. From 2010 to 2013 alone, the number of social media jobs increased by a whopping 1137%. And if you Google “ghostwriter social media”, seven results on just the first page are ads for agencies who can set you up. A search on LinkedIn brings up 6,491 results — and those are only the people who publicize it. Most don’t. In fact, the majority of ghostwriters I know personally declined to be quoted for this article. It’s a strange kind of invisible work force, and not one people know much about.

Photographic implementation of the "ghost writer": blurred, near-transparent hands hovering over a keyboard.

Photo CC-BY hobvias sudoneighm.

What we do know about this workforce is that most of them are women, and they predominantly run the social media accounts of public figures, brands and newsrooms. In fact, the majority of professionals in the public relations sector are women: a study by the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver found that women account for 55% of leadership roles in social media, but only 23.3% in media at large. Yet the heavy majority of CEOs are men. White men. It’s easy to see that an imbalance this vast in the creation and maintenance of personal brands isn’t just significant — it reeks of inequality. And the persistent gender wage gap tells me they’re probably not being paid the same as their male counterparts, either.

There are a lot of issues with this.

The first is the loss of work credit, of women failing to get the recognition they deserve for their contributions to social media brands, cultures, figures and phenomena. The silence of ghostwriters is secured by one paradox: the nature of the work forbids you from revealing yourself. What exacerbates the problem is that you can’t count on others (like your boss) to give credit where it’s due, either. Will Kelly, a technical writer and analyst, writes that while “the manager or executive may acknowledge the role of the ghostwriter in team meetings,” “the exact contributions of the ghostwriter go unmentioned when that person is talking to their manager or even getting together their list of accomplishments come annual review time.” I have read stories of ghostwriters out there who do their job so well, their boss claims to have written those thoughts themselves. The intellectual anonymity of the space (what’s considered “the norm”) thus ends up perpetuating a vicious cycle of sexism. A space where women aren’t heard, where they stay stuck in certain roles against the top of their glass ceiling, left to be the anonymous voice of another who receives the vast majority of the credit, benefits and compensation.

Photographic implementation of the "glass ceiling": someone standing on a glass floor, viewed from below.

Photo CC-BY judy dean.

My personal favorite irony? Social media, thought leadership, and online identity are all the components of CEOs’ directly outward-facing presence, meaning they’re the first thing anyone on the Internet sees about them or their company. That’s a huge responsibility. And yet, social media work — particularly that done by women — is still seen as frivolous, unimportant, even trivial. Andrea Garcia-Vargas, a Social Media Manager based in Silicon Valley, explains the real value of those in this workforce:

“People hugely underestimate the importance of digital amplifiers who know how to use these tech platforms to distribute content, to come up with the perfect text that will get users clicking “share” instead of exiting the page, to rack up millions of views and curate online communities drawing from fields as varied as data analysis and crowd psychology.”

An online being must be nurtured, and social media workers are at the wheel.

So, how do we start to unmask the “social CEO”, and the truth and politics of the workforce behind it? Should CEOs simply be more transparent about the fact that they aren’t writing their posts themselves? Would it affect the way readers consume their content? Absolutely. Would readers still follow those CEOs? It’s likely. After all, everyone knows you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. What’s new and what’s changing is the expectation of transparency, especially as people become increasingly aware of the ways information is easily manipulated on the Web. Social media has, for that reason, long been hailed for its intimate, unfiltered look into people’s lives. And that’s the thing: it shouldn’t be. Stephanie St. Martin, a Brand Awareness Manager, gave me some insight on how she handles some of her clients’ brands: “I think their voice is there but, just like all social media, it’s portraying the ‘best self’ and not the ‘real self’,” she wrote me in an email. “No one goes on Facebook to talk about their worst day or show off a terrible haircut.”

So, CEOs — just like us? Not exactly. Their thought leadership is a part of a larger, professional strategy, and involves a far vaster and more complex labor system than first appears.

Either way, there’s no indication that social media ghostwriting will cease anytime soon. In fact, the opposite is likely true. A Forbes article I found titled “The Entrepreneur’s Field Guide To Using Social Media Channels” recommends “Hir[ing] a college intern to run Snapchat for you. They’ll figure it out much better than you ever will.” It’s currently at 34,000 views. But who knows? The next time you tap “Retweet” on a good piece of content, you might consider the name on the handle isn’t the one we should pay tribute to.