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Rebuilding CEO Trust: The Delicate Balance of the CCO



Editor’s Note:

The precarious state of trust in senior executives, and in CEOs in particular, continues to be a critical challenge for companies to overcome if they are to earn and maintain the license to lead. So what are global communicators – and chief communications officers in particular – doing to earn trust? We recently asked CCOs and journalists about this issue at Edelman Germany’s inaugural Public Engagement Matters, a series of salons focused on the challenges and opportunities of globalization for German multinationals. Our colleague Heidi Eusebio shares what the conversation unearthed.

By Heidi Eusebio

We know from the 2012 Trust Barometer that CEO credibility is at an historic low, with 38 percent of people saying they trust CEOs to do what’s right. In Germany, that rate is an even lower 24 percent.

The reasons for this are far-reaching, from the economic crisis to cultural factors. The question then becomes, so how can CEOs regain credibility? And what role should chief communications officers play in helping them rebuild that trust? The answers, while far from easy, may lie in seeking a delicate balance in three key areas:

1.       Balancing the Remits of the Chief Legal Counsel and the CCO

While there is a genuine desire by chief communications officers to be more proactive with CEOs, there often may be a conflict with the legal team. Both seek to maintain corporate reputation, but often in very different ways. The general counsel tends to control messages to protect against risk, and the communicator wants to tell stories.  A balance between these two interests must be met for the best interest of the company.

2.       Balancing Caution with Openness to Arrive at Authenticity  

When CEOs venture into storytelling, it’s clear that one size doesn’t fit all—much depends on the individual CEO and his/her stakeholders. The journalists we spoke with were clear: they want access to CEOs, and they recoil from overly messaged “talking heads.”

While openness is key, how much is too much?  For example, China Daily EU Bureau Chief Fu Jing said there is a good perception of European CEOs in Asia but most of them are “critically cautious” when it comes to telling their stories . A top communications executive spoke about CEOs sometimes feeling too “vulnerable” to divulge personal stories publicly.

But at the same time, people are yearning for authenticity and want to see the “human side” of executives in order to trust them. In fact, another global communications executive told us that authenticity is a “pre-condition” to trust.

The devil is, as always, in the details. And that’s where the art, not the science, of a CCO comes in to play, helping to forge the right balance and take smart risks based on the situation.

3.       Balancing Share of Voice

Trust in CEOs is critical, but it’s only part of the equation. Professor Manfred Schwaiger from the Munich School of Management told us that companies need to strengthen the “corporate immune system” with many voices acting on its behalf. Like a vaccination, trust and a strong reputation will help protect the company in times of crisis. The CEO, employees, customers and key opinion leaders are all antibodies that together can fight for the company to stay strong.

A Look to the Future: Social Media Will Level the Playing Field

While these balances are tough to strike today, they may be even more delicate tomorrow. In 10 years, these same companies will be run by digital natives and the world will look different than how it does today – stakeholders will expect greater transparency, accessibility and engagement from CEOs. For countries like Germany, where we have a large number of mid-sized companies that are family-owned and occupy worldwide niche markets, this visibility and engagement will be a game changer. And for CCOs and CEOs everywhere, this will mean more complexity to navigate and more opportunities to consider.

Heidi Eusebio is director of global brands. She is based in Frankfurt.

Balancing Stones image by Paul Tomlin

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