by Michael Idinopulos
on May 27, 2014

How the Elite Consulting Firms Use Social

How do the elite consulting firms and Big 4 accountancies use social networks? The answer may surprise you.

Here at PeopleLinx, we help several top strategy consulting and Big 4 accounting firms with their employees’ presence on social. They’re wonderful clients–smart, strategic, and forward-looking.

So why do they need help with social business? For many reasons, they should be the first ones to embrace social business:

  • These are the most networked organizations in the universe. Their partners are the most powerful people you’ve never heard of. Their power resides in their ability to make phone calls that influence the actions of nearly every major corporation and government agency the world over. These folks are plugged in.
  • They’re known for innovative business practices. Many of the most influential business concepts of the past three decades (wisdom of teams, good-to-great, war for talent, business process outsourcing) began their lives as best practices within the top firms.
  • They’re producing some of the most thoughtful and engaged social business strategists in the business world. McKinsey’s Dave Edelman and McKinsey Global Institute, EY’s Chris Boudreaux, Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, and other consultants have contributed mightily to our understanding of how social transforms business.

So you might think the elite consulting and accounting firms have jumped into social business with both feet.

That’s not really the case.

Advising C-level executives of major global corporations is a sensitive business. The top firms are both excited by the prospect of cultivating relationships on social networks, but they’re also nervous. Confidentiality is a huge concern. So is reputation, and the risk of online musings being interpreted as one-size-fits-all management advice. Not to mention the logistical challenges of creating consistent practices across offices, languages, and timezones in an industry famous for its high employee churn.

The marketing director of one of the top firms summed it up well to me on the phone last week: “We know this is something we need to do, but we’re struggling with how to do it.”

The “Killer App” for Partners

The killer app for elite firms isn’t social publishing, social selling, social recruiting, or even social networking. It’s the LinkedIn profile.

That’s right, the LinkedIn profile.

The reason is deeply rooted in the way the top firms cultivate clients. For the top firms, the personal reputations of the partners are everything. Consulting and accounting partners aren’t just the firm’s executives; they’re also rainmakers. They’re expected to bring in large accounts through their personal relationships. Oh, and they’re also the product: the client is paying for time with the partners (and the teams that support them).

The reputation of the individual partner is supremely important.

The top firms’ websites have long included bios describing each partner’s accomplishments in gloriously understated technicolor. But those firms are realizing that their partners’ LinkedIn profiles get much more traffic than those proprietary bios. So the LinkedIn profile is gradually becoming the centerpiece of their partners’ online branding.

It’s not a quick win. Partners are almost always senior in both role and years, frequently on the road, and not overly fond of their laptops. They’re busy and impatient; some might even call them ADHD. Getting them to sit down, log in, and update their profiles isn’t easy. Some firms are resorting to full-time trainers to sit (literally) with partners and take them through their profiles.

Social and the Cone of Silence

Consultants are careful, bordering on paranoid, about who they connect with, follow, and friend.

It’s not that they’re asocial. On the contrary, the best consultants are highly networked. But they’re not doing it online.

The reason is confidentiality.

The top consultancies pride themselves on maintaining client confidentiality–part strategic imperative, part marketing. Many consultants work on sensitive projects (mergers, acquisitions, pricing, reorganizations, corporate turnarounds). The very fact that they are working with a particular client can send shock waves inside the company, to the competition, and even to the capital markets.

The top firms also leverage confidentiality as a reverse-psychology marketing tactic. By emphasizing the secrecy of their client relationships, they create a hidden aura of mystique and hidden power. When I was a McKinsey consultant, the Firm’s managing director told a prominent business publication that his primary job was to keep the firm’s name out of the headlines. (He was later convicted of insider trading, which was all over the headlines. But that’s a story for another day…)

The practical implication of all this is that the top consultants won’t disclose their clients. They are trained to avoid behavior that would allow an observer to infer who they’re advising. That rules out a lot of social networking activity. Checking in as mayor of the Hershey Hotel on Foursquare, tweeting “Wheels Up from the Bentonville Airport!”, or posting pictures of the Johnson & Johnson Employee Store on Instagram can be career-limiting moves for a consultant.

That applies in spades to social gestures like connecting on LinkedIn, following on Twitter, and friending on Facebook. Top consultants won’t friend, follow, or connect to clients unless the work is a matter of public record or the relationship is purely personal. Even then, a consultant is likely to avoid even the appearance of divulging a client relationship.

Keep in mind, these folks still use BlackBerries. They take privacy seriously.

Thought Leadership and Social Publishing

One area where the elite firms aren’t at all paranoid is and accounting firms are not shy about publicizing their thought leadership. For the top firms, it’s their primary form of marketing.

The top firms don’t generally care for traditional marketing. Many of them won’t even utter the word “marketing” and talk instead about “reputation building” and “thought leadership”.

The prestige firms were doing content marketing long before it had a name, and they’re still masters of the art. Shining examples include McKinsey Quarterly, PwC’s annual CEO compensation survey, and Millward Brown’s annual study of Top 100 brands. They attract new prospects through the power of their ideas, insights, and proprietary data. So they invest heavily to publish proprietary research, reports, surveys, and strategic perspectives. These publications are a marketing (oops, I mean reputation-building) investments. They’re usually made public or distributed to selective clients at no charge. Their strategic purpose is to enhance the firm’s reputation for thought leadership and to generate new opportunities from clients interested in the research.

The top firms use Twitter and LinkedIn to drive readers to their content. It’s a growing part of their distribution strategy, but on balance still much smaller than the good ole’ fashioned email blast.

Here again, it’s largely a structural problem. Most content marketing is fairly decentralized. It happens at the level of the practice area (banking, pharmaceuticals, corporate finance, M&A, etc.). The practice team responsible for content marketing within each practice is relatively small, and often doesn’t grasp the relationship between social engagement and relationship development.

So by and large the elite firms are just beginning to scratch the surface on social. You won’t find a lot of stimulating discussion or real-time insights being exchanged.

To find consultants having open conversations about strategic topics, you have to go off-label and look at the unofficial alumni groups on LinkedIn. By and large they’re populated by alumni of the major firms. Freed from the confidentiality constraints of active client service, they’re more inclined to speak their minds.

That’s where you’ll find out what consultants really think.

Take a look at our one-pager: Showcase Your Firm’s Most Valuable Assets


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