Four ways CEOs can win back the public’s trust

An annual survey of public trust finds that CEOs and other business leaders rank low in the public’s esteem—but there’s still hope

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (Nelson Ching/Bloomberg/Getty)

This year, the annual trust and credibility survey conducted by global PR firm Edelman showed that people place more trust in their peers and company employees than CEOs and government officials. There’s a flipping of the pyramid of influence, as peer-to-peer discussions prevail over the influence of leaders.

But despite the skepticism, the public’s trust in CEOs has actually been improving: It’s increased to 49%, compared to 41% a year ago. Edelman says that can be credited to CEOs who are stepping forward on important issues, including Howard Schultz of Starbucks on youth employment; Cyrus Mistry of Tata on education; and Jack Ma of Alibaba on inclusion.

Here are four ways CEOs can win the public’s trust and admiration, according to Edelman’s survey of more than 33,000 respondents in 25 countries, including Canada and US:

1. Create social impact in addition to profits

Currently, CEOs underperform in all of the 16 trust-building leadership attributes that Edelman measures. Their treatment of employees and customers falls short of the public’s expectations, and they are perceived to lack integrity in their business conduct by focusing too much on short-term financial results. The public wants companies to be more involved in their communities: 80% of survey participants believe businesses can both increase their bottom line and improve the economic and social conditions in the communities they operate, and respond positively to CEOs who do. Businesses can find a local issue meaningful to their customers and work to ameliorate it. 

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2. Express your values and share your story

Most CEOs (apart from young tech founders) are perceived to be too distant and hard to read. The public expects them to be more visible, and engage directly with them. They want to learn more about the CEO as a person, not just as a business figure, and hear them share their personal values and stories.

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3. Turn your employees into the company’s advocates

It turns out that a company’s employees are its most trusted spokespeople. That remains true whether the topic is financial earnings, business practices or the company’s treatment of employees and customers. Media spokespersons and activist consumers, on the other hand, are least trusted to deliver the company line.

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4. Engage with your stakeholders authentically and attend to their interests and concerns

In order for CEOs to engage with their company’s stakeholders in today’s media landscape, they have to extend beyond traditional media, to include social media and online media as well. Consumers are shown to rely on their family and friends when making purchase decisions. They trust these people have their best interest at heart, and will warn them about the risks of a product or service. CEOs are more likely to win their customer and stakeholders’ trust, if they engage with them in an honest and authentic manner, and address their interests and concerns during conversations, instead of promoting their business.

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