The involvement of CEOs at conferences such as the World Economic Forum represents an interesting paradox, when viewed through the lens of the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer. The newest edition of the global survey shows that whereas the public expect and want CEOs’ to work to tackle societal challenges, they also distrust them, with the majority of the public viewing them as motivated by greed and representing an institution that is distrusted in more than half of the 28 countries surveyed.
The 2018 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that despite the fact that every major economy in the world has returned to growth, the world remains in a state of distrust. Public trust in institutions in many countries is down significantly, led by the United States, where trust levels dropped farther than ever recorded in a country in a single year. In the Netherlands, business is the only trusted institution among the four institutions surveyed. With a trust score of 60% it falls only just within the trust zone. Government (54%) and the media (55%) score lower within the so-called neutral zone, and NGO’s (45%) are distrusted.
A majority of people (60%) see CEOs as being driven primarily by greed rather than the desire to make a positive impact on society. And respondents rank CEOs among the least credible people in society: they receive a 44% credibility rating as spokespeople, well in the distrust zone. In the Netherlands, the situation is even worse: the public give CEOs one of the lowest credibility ratings in the world: 27%.
On the flip side, the public sees that business can and should play a role in effecting change in society. Seven out of ten believe that a business’s making a profit can be compatible with contributing to society. Going a step further, 64% expect CEOs take the lead on change in society rather than wait for the government to impose it through legislation. Given that 63% of the Dutch population believe it is equally important for CEOs to create trust in their companies as it is to deliver high quality products and services, restoring trust and leading change should be CEOs’ highest priority.
In restoring trust in their companies, CEOs will have to start with rebuilding trust in the truth itself. In the battle for trust over the past twelve months, the biggest victim has been people’s confidence in truth. Persistent references to fake news have had a cumulative, toxic effect. 63% of the general population finds it difficult to distinguish between what is real news and what is fake. We are witnessing an erosion of a collective understanding what is fact and what is fiction and what is progress and what is decline. Without such understanding there can be no rational discourse, and by extension, no societal cohesion, economic or political security or progress.
As the leaders of the institution most trusted in the Netherlands, CEOs must lead from the front in the battle to reestablish trust in the truth. That endeavor begins with proactive and vocal efforts to build a common understanding of issues and developments central to the sector in which the company operates and relevant to the communities in which it is present. CEOs must paint a clear and compelling picture of how the company will work to address the central issues and concerns and tap opportunities to add value to the community. Doing so will require honesty, transparency, commitment and action – delivering on promises and taking accountability on crises.
In today’s landscape of credibility, CEOs must complement their own external engagement by leading from within their organizations. As people seek for terra firma in their own efforts to establish the truth, they are turning more than in the past to credentialed experts such as academics and technical experts within companies, according to the survey. And they continue to view a company’s employees as its most credible spokespeople by a wide margin. Cultivating a culture reinforces values of integrity, honesty and transparency and that empowers experts and employees to engage externally on the company’s behalf should be at the top of every CEO’s list.
Communication professionals have an essential role to play helping company leadership work to restore trust. In a world in which truth is under siege, doing the hard work of fact-checking and ensuring accuracy and consistency of the CEO’s and the company’s messages is more important than ever. Equally important is aligning communication consistently with a vision and anchoring it in a single set of values. This consistency should extend across all channels – in engagement with and through the traditional media and on social media, brand channels or through other commercial or non-commercial engagement.
In considering the optimal channel strategy for company leadership, it is helpful to note that despite the Dutch public’s lack of trust in its own ability to distinguish good from bad journalism, their trust in credentialed traditional journalists and journalism reaches into the trust zone, creating a significant gap with social media, about which they are far more skeptical.
Whereas today’s trust landscape presents all business leaders – not just those who gathered in Davos – with unprecedented challenges – in the battle to restore trust in truth and trust in leadership, silence is no option. CEOs must engage. They must lead, and their communication teams have a central role to play in their efforts to do so with success.