The annual industry measurement of trust, Edelman’s Trust Barometer, has found that levels of public trust is down across all sectors, with urgent consequences for business leaders and those who communicate on their behalf. Ahead of his appearance at the recent EACD Forum in Madrid (review here), Edelman’s Global Vice President, Michael Stewart, answered questions put to him by EACD member Shweta Kulkarni Van Biesen about the ROI of authentic CEO positioning and the need for more visible leadership in a volatile Europe.

How do communications leaders position their CEOs in a way that is both authentic and that brings benefit to the overall corporate reputation – and even the financial bottom line?

We’re currently operating in an environment where there is a complete crisis of confidence in leadership. From sexual harassment scandals to the Paradise Papers, the news cycle in 2017 has been a virtual referendum on leadership itself. At the heart of this crisis is an understandable breakdown in the public’s trust in institutions and the people who run them simply to do what is right. In our 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, we found a sharp decline in trust across all institutions as well as in those who lead them. Just 37 per cent of the general population say CEOs are credible – a 12-point drop over the prior year.

Above: Michael Stewart interviewed at the 2017 EACD Forum in Madrid

In this context, we as communicators have our work cut out for us. Based on our research on trust, we’ve outlined the following topline principles for helping leaders gain credibility in an authentic way in order to deliver on business goals:

  • Be accessible and visible. CEOs are expected to engage frequently and directly with all stakeholders, particularly employees, both in person and through owned and social media channels.
  • Share your values. People expect honest and ethical leadership. And as trust is built through shared values and connection, people want to understand a leader’s personal values and experience.
  • Provide industry insight. It’s important not just to share what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it, what benefits it will bring and how you will address the potential downsides of change, such as job loss with increased automation.
  • Talk with people, not at them. Conversational communications are far more effective today than broadcast-style communications. Spontaneous speakers are more believed than those who seem rehearsed, blunt spokespeople are more believed than those who are diplomatic. People believe stories based on personal experiences over those based on data, and they believe what companies say on their social media pages more than they believe what they say in advertising.

Where is the line between a celebrity CEO (overshare) and a CEO that stays in the background?

I would posit that the celebrity CEO was a phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s, when CEOs were depicted as tycoons with private jets and all the trappings of wealth. The Great Recession ended that era, and in its place, was a rise of a more cautious, almost invisible CEO. Today, in the face of unprecedented complexity and an always-on social media world, CEOs can no longer be invisible. So, today’s leadership model is one of the Engaged CEO. This model understands that the traditional pyramid of authority has been upended, and CEOs and leaders are no longer at the top of the influence pyramid. Influence now sits with the people. To be credible, CEOs listen directly to their stakeholders, act on their insights and ultimately engage them as advocates.

Some CEOs are seen as overpaid and unrelatable. How do CCOs help change that perception?

In the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, we found that 54 percent of people said that CEOs were not paid fairly in relation to everyone else, and 50 percent said CEOs could not relate to people like me. As trust in institutions plummeted in our study this year, one can only imagine these scores would only be higher had we asked the same question in 2017.

CCOs have a vital role in making a CEO more relatable to others. However, in order to be able to share the opinions and values of a CEO in credible and authentic way, the CEO must be intimately involved in the effort. Communicators cannot lock themselves in a room creating talking points for a CEO without his or her input. The CEO must participate in the discussion with the CCO. When the ideas and causes come from the CEO, they will be believable to a sceptical public.

Once a CEO’s story and vision are clear, a CCO is its guardian. He or she must ensure that the story is consistently brought to life in multiple ways, across multiple channels, and not just by the CEO but together with other trusted voices like employees, technical experts and academics.

How do CCOs evaluate the impact of executive positioning, specifically in terms of business or an organisation's overall results?

The real ROI of executive positioning goes far beyond impressions or hits. Essentially it goes to the core of building trust and a company’s license to operate, and as such correlates directly to tangible business outcomes ranging from the ability to raise capital to the ability to attract and retain talent.

In Europe, where the political contract is being rewritten by extremists, interest groups, and populist parties, are business leaders taking on a more vocal role in social issues, stepping in where our political leaders are failing – and, if so, what role does the CCO have to play in this?

Business leaders in Europe and around the world are taking a stand on many social issues of the day, from Unilever’s Paul Polman here in Europe and his commitment to sustainability to US where CEOs have resigned from the President’s Economic Council. In this context, the CCO has a critical role as strategic counsellor in determining what issues align with their companies’ missions, values, business objectives and track records, and therefore are the ones on which to take a stand.

The EACD recently reiterated the ethical standards which guide our profession at large in its Manifesto Against Fake News. How do you see this implemented or help guide executive positioning?

Ethical standards must be the foundation of everything we do. It is our license to operate. As a result, every communicator must insist on accuracy and transparency in all their actions. In terms of executive positioning, communicators must help their CEOs listen to the needs of their stakeholders, ensure they communicate accurately and keep them accountable. In a world of peer influence, the license to lead can only be earned by building trust. And trust can only be built through proactive, transparent, ongoing, two-way communication with key stakeholders built on a foundation of shared values.

Shweta Kulkarni Van Biesen has 12 years of experience helping companies and nonprofits reach their goal through communications. In her current role, she is responsible for reputation management, leadership communications, and employee engagement. Shweta previously managed brand newsrooms designed to reach a range of audiences at MedTech Europe, medical technology industry association in Brussels. She has been a Fellow at Johnson & Johnson, working in their corporate social responsibility team.