Ipsos Corporate Reputation

The role of the CEO in external communications

Communicators have to be selective about the frequency and nature of the top executive’s participation, balancing the benefits and risks of bringing a powerful voice into the conversation.

 

Use of the CEO as one of the company’s primary communicators is influenced by industry norms, the nature of the message, and the target audience – with cultural and generational differences in how stakeholders respond to a CEO as an important consideration.
Council members highlight the risk of the CEO’s personality and corporate identity becoming intertwined, as well as the potential to polarise media opinion.
The CEO must be regarded as credible, authentic, empathetic, and transparent if their communications are to have a positive impact. In some cases, other employees may have greater cut-through on a specific issue or with a certain audience.

 

Today, the toolbox of a communications professional is wider and deeper than ever before. From traditional resources such as press releases or spokespeople pertinent to the issue at hand, to newer methods such as social media, blogs or interactive multimedia platforms, the array of options is continually evolving. Within this modern environment, the medium and spokesperson can be as important as the message itself, with the decisions made by corporate communicators playing a crucial role in shaping the image the company is able to create for itself.

Among the decisions facing communicators is the role that the CEO should play in supporting stakeholder engagement. Here, the devil is in the detail.

On the whole, Reputation Council members see the Chief Executive as playing an important communications role. There is a caveat though: the leader is not a communications ‘silver bullet’. Their involvement should be assessed carefully, balancing risk and reward, with consideration given to whether the CEO’s personality and characteristics fit the specific brief.

"EVERY CEO SHOULD BE NAMED THE CHIEF REPUTATION OFFICER FOR HIS OR HER COMPANY."
Balancing risk and reward

In balancing the potential risk and reward of involving the CEO, Council members highlight some key factors to consider.

 

RISK

Overexposure. This could erode the impact of their voice and place unnecessary focus on less important issues.

"If people like me do their jobs well, then the nature of the enterprise should do the heavy lifting when it comes to external perceptions. If it were up to me, I would have the CEO out there three times per year and I hold them in reserve for really big issues or circuit breakers."

Difficulty in distinguishing the person from the company. High-profile CEOs can generate increased scrutiny and pose a challenge when personal views differ from the corporate position.

"It humanises a company, gives it personality and a vision. But the risks are that it becomes too connected with the individual and the personal behaviour impacts the business when they go off the rails, for example, in the case of Tesla."

Personality traits could undermine effectiveness.

"It’s important to speak for the company, but it depends on the CEO’s personality. They need to be comfortable on social media and able to speak on broad topics. The CEO can bring transparency to the company. It’s important to speak on business-critical issues, but there are some cases where the CEO can be too much – sometimes a rank-and-file employee is more authentic."

REWARD

Personification of the company’s values. The CEO is the company’s ambassador, conveying a vision and setting the company’s tone and image.

"We live in a media society that is more strongly personalised than before. If you have a CEO who is an authentic communicator, who is able to excite, then you have the best marketing or PR strategy possible."

A sense of authority. The CEO’s voice emphasises the importance of the message, maximising the chances of engagement.

"It is extremely important for a CEO to act as their company’s figurehead for communication. Nowadays, companies cannot be represented by their brands only: CEOs are required to play a primary role in their companies’ communication efforts because they are the decision-maker ultimately responsible for their companies’ actions."

The face of the company in a major crisis. Instilling confidence, being transparent and outlining short-term and long-term actions.

"I think when the company has an imminent crisis situation, with damages to third parties, the CEO needs to participate and communicate decisions around investments, continuity, etc. that affect stakeholders, be it employees, partners or suppliers."
The portrait of a top communicator

As one might expect, the CEO needs to be a well-rounded leader for him or her to run the organisation successfully. There are, however, useful characteristics to take into account when looking to apply their role to the world of communications. The views of the Reputation Council can be distilled into three guiding principles.

 

Credible and reliable

In order to come across as an authoritative figure in front of key stakeholder groups, competence in the job is essential, as well as a solid track record delivering on the company’s vision. Key audiences need to believe that the person in charge of the organisation is a capable individual who will be in the post beyond the short-term and can take decisive action to steer the company in the right direction.

"Firstly, a master of the brief, so you do need to know the detail, you need to be able to speak credibly to a number of people, know how much things cost, to be able to describe your operations properly, not just in a flippant way. That would be the foundation."

Charismatic, confident and empathetic

Successfully running the business is simply not enough for the CEO to become a valuable asset for the communications function. He or she needs to appeal to and captivate audiences. They need to be relatable but display confidence and a feeling of security both in the tone and content of the message.

"They need to be able to talk about what the business does in a way that engages and connects with people. If they are not good communicators, that will land flat. The role of a CEO has got to change. They have to have more of the softer skills. They need to know about consumers and stakeholders and what makes them tick. They need to be able to engage on issues of concern. But if they have no empathy or no grasp of the issues, the best communications brief in the world won’t help!"

Honest, transparent and authentic

Displaying genuine motivations, with the best intentions at heart, is also vital. The credibility of the message, the CEO themself and the entire company are all at risk if stakeholders do not sense authenticity.

"Truthfulness, transparency, honesty, commitment, passion. But most of all, in the end you express what you are and what a stakeholder expects: a real speech. We are working very hard on this: to have coherence between internal and external discourse, this discourse to be transparent, to not try to hide, seeking to have the greatest transparency and honesty. This is absolutely fundamental."
When the CEO becomes a celebrity

What happens when the CEO is so good at being the figurehead of the company that their name becomes synonymous with that of the organisation? Examples such as Steve Jobs at Apple, Richard Branson at Virgin or Elon Musk at Tesla come to mind. Very often, these are strategic choices made in the early years, where a founder seeks the spotlight to help boost the profile of the company.

Overall, Council members feel that this has proven a successful strategy in the past for many, but it is a tactic that should be carefully thought through.

There is a need to consider not only the profile and abilities of the individual, but also industry dynamics, cultural nuances and generational differences.

"The popularity itself is not bad, but it must be related to the business so that it is a healthy relationship for the company."
"I think celebrity CEOs are a very dangerous game to play. I think celebrity CEOs are a problem here. The tall poppy syndrome [being targeted for criticism due to their success] makes it difficult for a prominent voice to be sustainably successful. I don’t think it is a good model in the current era because this culture is quite oppressive when it comes to success. Less of an issue in the US, where a celebrity CEO still holds some value. I don’t think millennials or Gen Z are particularly interested or respectful of middle-aged men and women who run companies – they are much more interested in brands and movements."

All in all, Council members see some risks if the image of the company and CEO merge into one in the public eye.

In situations where the CEO is an appointed figure who will lead the company for a number of years, rather than the founder and essence of the company, their profile should be moderated accordingly.

"Unless it is your name above the door, unless you are Elon Musk, you need to be very careful that you are the guy who for a period of time is running this organisation and you are a hired hand to do so and at some stage, you will stop being the hired hand and someone else will come in. And as long as all CEOs act like that, they won’t go far wrong, but quite a few don’t act like that."
"Having a celebrity CEO can be helpful but can be a nightmare, especially for the PR department because media will polarise. If they have built this profile around them and they might run their own Twitter account or something, it is very hard to manage the flow of communication and the content of communication. On one hand, that is good for transparency and openness, but on the other hand, he or she might need the time to evaluate information and talk to his or her lieutenants before making comments."

Final thoughts

Call on your CEO, but do so after careful consideration.

A communications strategy is successful when it’s able to deliver a clear and compelling message to the audience it is trying to address.

The company needs to act like a well-coordinated orchestra to deliver a compelling symphony.

The communications professional, as the conductor, can achieve this with a greater array of instruments than ever before. Here, the CEO can play the lead tenor or soprano able to unlock attention and convey the essence of the ensemble in a way no one else can.

However, like the valuable resource that they are, the CEO needs to appear at the right time and in coordination with the rest of the company.

Methodology: 154 interviews conducted with Reputation Council members between 25th June and 12th November 2018.

Read more from the Reputation Council...

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Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, the S of ESG is coming under greater scrutiny

Actions on E, S and G in tandem remain essential to corporate reputation

As ESG has surged up the consumer agenda, new Ipsos data shows that improving society is identified as the top priority for multinationals among consumers across the globe – perhaps not surprising given the social implications of the pandemic. While fundamental issues such as safe working conditions are seen as most important here, each company should carefully consider how to adapt its operations to improve sustainable business practice. Companies should continue to pursue actions on all three pillars of ESG though. Not just because E and G remain critical in the public’s eyes, but also as it – as we should all know now – makes good business sense to do so.

Companies’ role in creating shared value

Companies are increasingly assessed on the extent to which they bring ‘net benefits’ to society. Especially among the financial community and the media there is a focus on ESG: companies’ performance on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues that come with doing business. Not just because you ultimately shoot yourself in the foot if you run out of the natural resources you need, treat your staff unfairly, or become wound up in corruption scandals. No, also because doing the right thing has BECOME a source of value creation. Not least, this is because we – ‘the public’, consumers and employees – pay more attention to what companies do or stand for than we did a decade ago – be that their efforts to increase staff diversity & inclusion, meeting net zero goals, or paying their fair share of taxes.

In March 2021 Ipsos asked consumers across 28 markets to rank ESG priorities for multinationals. While all three aspects, ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘G’, were seen as important, improving society (S) came out as the top priority, with 41% of the votes globally. Protecting the environment (E) followed at 31%, almost on equal footing with practicing good governance (G, 28%).

In 22 out of the 28 countries surveyed, improving society received the most picks as the top priority, with a majority of the vote share in Spain (54%), Poland (52%), Japan (52%) and Korea (50%).

These findings are not surprising in the context of COVID-19. Health & safety precautions in the workplace, as well as a desire for job security amid economic uncertainty, have, for many, become necessary concerns.

How should companies engage with the ‘S’?

Given the increased focus on the role of companies to contribute socially, where should they focus their efforts on the ‘S’ pillar of ESG?

Looking at which societal issues people want multinationals to address, our survey shows that improving working conditions and worker health & safety come top. This is true across all regions, from Europe to APAC, to Middle East-Africa, to LATAM through to North America. Potentially contributing here are new COVID-related concerns about ventilation, social distancing, face masks at work etc., on top of existing issues.   

Despite ample attention across (social) media for issues around gender equality and diversity, these topics came out lower down the list. Again, this holds true when looking in detail at the answers from people across different parts of the world. 

It’s impossible to give a blank slate answer to how companies can best create shared value on ‘S’. The priorities in the eyes of consumers listed above, give an idea. But what that means for each individual business is something that needs careful consideration. That’s why it’s so important for companies to engage with their stakeholders on these issues. Employees who feel their employer looks after them, will be more willing to go the extra mile: a ‘give’ for the ‘get’. Local communities who see that companies take their interests at heart, will be more open to dialogue and working together to create mutual benefits. Etcetera.

Ipsos advises businesses on how they should address ESG challenges and helps them to define, manage and communicate their priorities. A relevant example to multinationals is our advice on how to frame “benefits” of ESG strategies to consumers. As people aren’t driven by sustainability claims alone to take action (as they often feel they are doing enough already), it is most effective to couple these to an extra incentive personal to them. So instead of saying: “switch to renewable energy to reduce your carbon footprint” position this as “switch to renewable energy will save you money AND help you reduce your footprint”.

Finally, what’s left to say is that, as I have said before, investments in ESG issues should be financially responsible and prudent in their own right, giving shareholders a return on investment. Ultimately, genuine progress on ESG will help to protect companies’ social licence to operate and bolster their reputation.

For more information please contact:

Marloes Klop
Research Director, Corporate Reputation

Marloes.Klop@ipsos.com

Technical details about the survey

These are the results of a 28-market online survey conducted by Ipsos on its Global Advisor platform. Ipsos interviewed a total of 14,000 adults aged 18-74 in the United States, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa and Turkey, and 16-74 in 23 other markets. The survey was fielded between 19 February and 5 March 2021.

The sample consists of approximately 500 individuals in each of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland), Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the US.

The samples in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the US can be taken as representative of their general adult population under the age of 75.

The samples in Brazil, Chile, mainland China, Colombia, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey are more urban, more educated, and/or more affluent than the general population. The survey results for these markets should be viewed as reflecting the views of the more “connected” segment of their population.

The data is weighted so that each country’s sample composition best reflects the demographic profile of the adult population according to the most recent census data.

Where results do not sum to 100 or the ‘difference’ appears to be +/-1 more/less than the actual, this may be due to rounding, multiple responses, or the exclusion of “don’t know” or not stated responses.

The precision of Ipsos online polls are calculated using a credibility interval with a poll of 500 accurate to +/- 4.8 percentage points. For more information on the Ipsos use of credibility intervals, please visit the Ipsos website.

The tech sector always bets that product quality will override privacy concerns

Probably the most common criticism levelled at the tech sector is the one about privacy – the sense that the tech sector, or government enabled by the tech sector, are collecting far more data on individuals than they should, and that the data is then being sold or used for unclear purposes. While the tech sector sticks closely to its cherished, and well-proven, ideology that positive user experience nearly always mitigates these concerns in practice, it is also true that the concerns of pro-privacy groups within society, and government, are getting louder and more prominent.

Stark evidence of this can be seen across two, relatively recent, product launches. Both of which have attracted major criticisms from privacy and digital rights campaigners, while at the same time being major commercial success stories.

Concerns around business and government use of personal information is high on a global scale

Let’s look at those concerns first – the 2020 Ipsos Global Trends survey[1] shows in stark detail the level of concern that exists around the world about what is being done by companies and governments using the personal data being collected from people when they go online.

A rise in private sector surveillance

So, bearing such concerns in mind, let’s examine the news coverage of Amazon’s Ring product line over the last few weeks. Ring is a video doorbell system, which seems innocuous, but with millions sold what you end up with is a potential surveillance network the size of which has never been seen before, and all in the hands of Amazon. And what has Amazon done with it? For one it initially entered into partnership with a large number of law enforcement agencies in the US that allowed them access to the videos it records without a warrant being required[2]. To quote from the Guardian, because of Ring “law enforcement are given a backdoor entry into private video recordings of people in residential and public space that would otherwise be protected under the fourth amendment”. While Amazon has recently extended its moratorium on sharing its facial recognition software with police, a ban it says that will stay in place until Congress creates the appropriate safeguards, it is puzzling why a similar approach to sharing data with law enforcement has not been adopted with Ring. Especially given the high-profile critique of the product by former Amazon software engineer Max Eliaser;

“The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society. The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation and there is no balance that can be struck. Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back[3]

Now Amazon can certainly say that they are following the law as it exists and that the capabilities and requirements of the Ring product are all made available to the consumer at the point of sale. Amazon has acknowledged some of this controversy and has consequentially changed how police ask for video content, now requiring the police to ask for footage via the Ring Neighbors app, allowing local users to comment or assist as they judge best[4]. However, to a background of high consumer concern about how personal data is being used and with Ring cameras being described as “a threat to privacy at best and a danger to society and democracy at worst[5]”, critics may accuse Amazon of not thinking product features through a bit more carefully. That said, when they have a product that has shifted many millions of units in the US alone it is clear that, as ever, product utility quashes privacy concerns at point of purchase. A fact underlined by the 4.6 rating the Ring 3 has on Amazon.com, a rating based on 33,000+ reviews.

From surveillance to tracking

Enough with Amazon, I hear the tech fans cry, that’s just one of the major brands. Well, let's turn to Apple and its brand-new gadget - the AirTag. A device sold as the means to find things you have lost, via a Bluetooth signal that alerts sympathetic devices that are web-enabled. Perfect for finding your luggage, your car, or, as has been pointed out by a wide range of news agencies, the person you are stalking.

Apple has attempted to build in safeguards to prevent “unwanted tracking” but the slew of media coverage over the last few weeks that point out how ineffective those safeguards are in practice probably shows how little thought the designers of this product put into thinking about the downsides of this product compared to the potential upsides. The warning sound that alerts the user to unwanted tracking is easily missed, and while people with an iPhone might be able to find unwanted AirTags those with Android phones cannot (right now).

While plenty of apps, charmingly called “stalkerware”, exist to help one person track another, and there are other products similar to AirTags where the manufacturers have put far less effort into stopping them from being used for nefarious purposes than Apple has. However, part of the surprise here is that, as The Washington Post articulates well “AirTags show how even Apple, a company known for emphasizing security and privacy, can struggle to understand all the risks involved in creating tech that puts everyday things online[6]. This disconnect between a company that is often praised for its firm stance on personal privacy and the potential misuse of this product is vast and easily fixed with little effort. As Wired suggests “Apple leadership needs to give abuse survivors and experts a central place in its development process, incorporating their feedback from the start. Otherwise, the company will continue to make products that endanger people more than they help[7]”.

Responding to this wave of criticism[8] Apple has announced some changes – reducing the amount of time before an AirTag starts beeping once it is away from its owner's iPhone and promising an Android application as well. Just like Amazon with Ring its good to see Apple responding to the issue, but it again raises the question of how a product like this got to market with these issues when Apple usually takes these issues so seriously. That said, just as with Amazon’s Ring it is highly likely that this product will sell incredibly well despite any privacy concerns due to its sheer usefulness. In fact one industry analyst in Forbes[9] confidently predicts its success, and possible billion dollar revenue for Apple, due to the vast number of devices the product can connect to and the popularity of the Find My app among Apple product users.

Consumers value privacy – as well as products that make their lives easier

Ultimately the tech sector knows its customers very, very well and knows that while there are people who may not buy these products because of privacy issues there are far more people who will ignore those concerns and buy them anyway. Negative media coverage of the like described above will have very little impact on the level of individual customers. That said, increased media focus on perceived privacy issues reinforces some of the negative reputational themes that affect the tech sector and the brands within it and are currently fuelling many of the debates that are ongoing around the world among legislators thinking of new regulation. Innovative new products that skirt the edge of what is appropriate, or legal, when it comes to privacy is one thing, as long as they are profitable, but fuelling the fires of regulation is another. The tech sector may want to ponder this.

Article links

[1] Markets: Argentina, Albania, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States. 

Method The survey for the 2020 edition was carried out online using the Ipsos Online Panel, and face to-face interviewing in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. The results are weighted to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the adult population according to the most recent country census data. Total global data has not been weighted by population size, but are simply a country average.

Fieldwork dates June-July 2019

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/18/amazon-ring-largest-civilian-surveillance-network-us

[3] https://amazonemployees4climatejustice.medium.com/amazon-employees-share-our-views-on-company-business-f5abcdea849

[4] https://www.cnet.com/home/security/rings-police-problem-didnt-go-away-it-just-got-more-transparent/

[5] https://thenextweb.com/news/amazon-engineer-ring-should-be-shut-down-immediately-and-not-brought-back

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/05/05/apple-airtags-stalking/

[7] https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-apples-air-tags-are-a-gift-to-stalkers/

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-57351554

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/timbajarin/2021/04/20/airtags-are-apples-next-billion-dollar-business/?sh=4f60c605d187

For more information please contact:

Carl Phillips
Director & Global Stakeholder Research Lead, Corporate Reputation

Carl.Phillips@ipsos.com