This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer results shine a harsh light on today’s leaders. Only about one in five respondents trusts business leaders to tell the truth. The only people less trusted then CEOs as a source of information about a company are government officials or regulators. Having recently come from Davos, with this data fresh in my mind, I gleaned some explanations for this trust gap and potential roads to credibility for executives.
There were 250 journalists at Davos and I asked many of them what they think of the executives they met during the week. Typical answers were, “Nothing interesting to say,” “Only speaks about how great his/her company is,” “Nothing new.” The most damming answer of all was sadly the most common: “They seemed too messaged.”
Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the criticism is that PR people had forced these leaders to give stale, robotic and boring answers. And if you can’t blame us, then you can blame the investor relations team or lawyers. Journalists perceive a fortress of handlers around executives – keeping anything newsworthy or interesting at a distance.
The IR and government relations professionals have prudent reasons to avoid regulatory or competitive pitfalls. As PR people, though, it’s our job to help our clients be interesting and engaging.
Here are a few observations of behaviors from executives who effectively work with the media and other external stakeholders, delivering value and building trust through their communications:
Speak beyond corporate messaging. At Davos, there is an expectation that executives will speak not just about their companies but also about industry and societal trends. One way to build trust is for an executive to share the unique point of view that he or she has at the helm of a company in order to shed light on a particular macroeconomic trend, or to help frame or contextualize a societal issue for a journalist.
Convene groups of shared interests. A leader doesn’t need to lead from a lectern, he can be a convener who connects other experts and drives a conversation to inform his own expertise and create a community of shared interests. At Davos, it’s possible to pull together leaders from across the globe and various industries (as our client IMAX, CEO Rich Gelfond, did for a conversation about “The Globalization of Entertainment”). These same conversations can occur at other conferences or in global cities during executive visits.
Cultivate relationships. Two of the most effective CEO-communicators of our times, Jack Welch and Steve Jobs, invested in relationships with a few members of the media. While those relationships don’t guarantee positive coverage, they do have the potential to drive feature coverage and give journalists part of what they most crave – unfiltered access. Davos is a rare place where CEOs and media easily mix. Face time is essential – so build time with reporters into your regular diary whether in your home market or during international travel.
These lessons provide helpful guidelines for communicating not only in Davos, but throughout the year — ultimately delivering value to media and enhancing trust.
Justin Blake is global lead, executive positioning.
Image by World Economic Forum/Moritz Hager.