Trust in companies — which collapsed during the financial crisis — has improved in most countries, but according to our Edelman Trust Barometer, this recovery of confidence has stalled. CEOs are trusted by a mere 43% of the survey’s respondents; only government officials fared worse (36%). Real trust is put in people “like myself” (62%) and academics or experts (67%).
The fact that the trust gap between business and governments is widening (in favor of business) does not reflect corporate achievement, but governmental failure. Criticism of leaders in both realms has become a ritual when some of the world’s most elite gather for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, which ended last week.
So why is the public so skeptical of companies and their bosses?
One core problem is that many chief executives rarely make themselves heard. They speak around the time of the earnings call, but then talk mainly about performance and numbers. Beyond that narrow window they keep quiet, worried about regulators and misleading earnings guidance. The irony is that — analysts and investors apart — most people couldn’t care less about quarterly performance. They want to hear about a company’s innovation and its response to broader societal issues.
Not only do many CEOs fail to address the right topics; they often fail to engage at all — whether with groups of employees, on social media, or in one-on-one meetings. Many chief executives even shy away from classic media interviews. Journalists often tell us that when CEOs speak to media, they typically sound “too messaged” and overly scripted. It’s like conducting an interview with a compliance department, not a person.
Part of the problem sits squarely with a certain school of PR professionals, who preach “message discipline” at all costs. Yes, CEOs need to be careful, but not to the point where they ignore the topics of greatest interest to the public.
And here’s another barrier: the chief executives themselves. They have many skills, but media and stakeholder relations are typically not a part of that. In contrast, the CEOs adroit in media and stakeholder engagement tend to make it a priority. One CEO of a multinational corporation told us that on his path to the top he deliberately sought the help of a media coach. And as we know from journalists and influencers, his investment paid off.
Another factor that makes chief executives sound stiff is the setting. Media engagement is built into tightly regimented days that are not conducive to relationship building. And here is where Davos re-enters the picture. The meeting is one of the only places where top global CEOs speak comfortably to other leaders and to the press. The WEF deliberately strips away much of the corporate shell of handlers and lawyers. More importantly, the purpose of Davos is not just to talk, but also to listen. Conversations there tend to be wide-ranging — not reduced to performance and earnings, but about context and insight. Davos turns many leaders into good talkers, making business leaders into a source of positive corporate stories that would be certain to raise trust in companies.
That’s because of the way they are told: by executives who appear sincere, engaging, and at times full of humor. These CEOs come across as humans, as people one can trust.
So to regain the public’s trust, chief executive officers need to learn a lesson from Davos and start communicating differently. Instead of reverting to type and staying on message, they should ask themselves: What if I were as straightforward with the public as with my peers? What would I do and say in Davos?