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CEO Communications: Building & Maintaining Trust

Perri Robinson

Mar 2, 2022

These days communication departments are expected to handle a much more diverse range of tasks compared to 10 or 20 years ago. For example, teams now have to execute on business-critical activities such as rolling out CEO Communications strategies that build trust and transparency, deal with faster and more extensive information flows, and support top-management decision-making processes. Echoing this sentiment, the European Communications Monitor 2020 expects the following requirements to become top priorities for communication teams by 2023:

Results from the 2020 European Communication Monitor

For the purpose of this article, we’re focusing on how CEO Communications can help build trust. We decided to focus here because this issue in particular is reaching boiling point. The Covid-19 pandemic well and truly put trust to the test – and it looks like it’s about to burst.

It’s not uncommon for various macro and micro factors to cause trust in corporations and public organizations to fluctuate. Covid-19, for example, accelerated a lack of trust in the media, government bodies, and NGOs due to the widespread perception that such organizations failed to respond effectively and 'do the right thing'. Naturally, when people no longer trust the media or politicians, they look elsewhere for guidance and call on businesses to step in and fill the void. As a result, the role of CEO Communication has never been greater.

According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, citizens now view corporations as the most credible institutions. Expectations around businesses not just stepping up and discussing today's challenges, but solving them, are growing. This shift is causing new demands to be placed on CEOs and the communication teams that support them.

With nearly half (48%) of a company’s reputation attributed to a CEO’s reputation, the importance of CEOs building trust is paramount.

Graphs from Edelman’s Trust Barometer showing citizens now view corporations as the most credible institutions

Before we delve into ways communication teams can help CEOs build trust, let’s first explore new demands expected from CEOs, since these have a direct impact on the messaging executives must lead with.

Understanding new demands from CEO Communications

Heightened need for brand engagement

Edelman’s Trust study revealed that 68% of consumers and 62% of employees feel they have the power to force corporations to change. This shows how stakeholders are now increasingly demanding a seat at the table, but in order for this new dynamic to be successful, two-way conversations between brand and stakeholders must be present.

Brand engagement, the process of interacting with stakeholders through varied channels, has never been more important. Some companies have created completely new jobs to fulfill this new demand, Volkswagen, for example, has hired a "Head of CEO Communications".

Calls for CEO activism

Historically, most CEOs were pretty reserved when it came to discussing global challenges, but the days of sidelining this are over. Edelman’s Trust study found that 86% of respondents expect CEO Communications to not just address business results, but take a stand on at least one of the following issues:

  • Impact of the pandemic
  • Job loss and automation
  • Societal issues
  • Local community issues
People holding signs at a protest. One sign reads "Staying silent in times of injustice is a privilege".

CEO activism significantly helps long-term growth, in fact, Weber Shandwick research found that 40% of consumers expressed they are more likely to buy from a company when CEO Communications resonate with them. Furthermore, 67% of communications and marketing executives whose CEO has spoken out about a social-political issue say the activism had a positive impact on their company reputation. And it’s not just consumers that want CEOs to take a stand, the EY CEO Imperative Study also revealed that investors and boards want CEO communications to highlight humanity’s greatest challenges too, commenting:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, our survey of the CEOs, board directors, and institutional investors of the world’s largest corporations finds that institutional investors are not a brake to corporate action on global challenges. They endorse the corporate investments needed to make progress on these issues and will increasingly factor the corporate response to global challenges into their investment decisions.

CEO communications staying true to brand purpose

Korn Ferry's CEO for the Future study found 74% of interviewees cited a genuine sense of mission and purpose as a vital trait that all CEO communications should possess.

Simply defined, purpose is the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc. A purpose-driven brand is one that openly puts its core values at the forefront of everything it does - and more importantly, stays true to that purpose rather than using it as a buzzword in CEO communications.

Doing things ‘on purpose’ is a hallmark of the most inspirational and successful leaders. These are the people who can lead their business with total clarity and commitment, secure in the knowledge of not just what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it.

To ensure that this purpose is understood, CEO communications need social agility, empathy and an ability to connect meaningfully with employees, customers, and other stakeholders, both directly and via social tools and platforms.

How to use CEO communications to build trust with stakeholders

Heart padlocks

1 Regularly monitor brand reputation

Before CEO communications can build trust, we first need to understand how our organization and CEO's personal reputation are perceived. An editorial and social media brand reputation analysis will uncover key characteristics associated with CEOs, for example, comms teams might discover that in certain countries the media takes a disliking to their board, and therefore choose to focus more resources on CEO communications and media relations to help improve local reputation.

Frequently monitoring the media is critical for maintaining trust too. Time is of the essence when it comes to negative stories circulating, so be sure to keep an eye on the media for detrimental mentions and decrease the chances of them spreading. We can also use this insight to our advantage and build counter-argument messaging to show that we're both listening and addressing issues.

2 Encourage two-way dialogue through social media presence

Sociability of CEOs has risen dramatically over the past ten years, and with good reason. CEOs who are active on social media and have a strong online presence/ digital profile benefit from:

  • Building deeper customer relations
  • Improved company reputations
  • Enhanced visibility amongst customers, prospects, and other stakeholders
  • Greater engagement, in fact, research shows that executives and leaders outperformed companies on LinkedIn engagement by more than 320%
  • Influencing macro agendas, Herbert Dies, CEO of Volkswagen commented “In 2021 we want to communicate more intensively with politics, Twitter is the medium.”

Leslie Gaines-Ross, Chief Reputation Strategist at Weber Shandwick further explains:

Building reputation comes in many forms today. One of the most underutilized ways is for CEOs to communicate online where they can efficiently signal that they are listening carefully to customers, are curious about how their products or services are being received, and that they are open and transparent. In a few years, the risk-reward ratio will shift and more CEOs will reap the reputational rewards that come along with being social.

Being present on social media means being there, being available, and being willing to hear what audiences are saying. That being said, if the CEO works for a large company, the noise on social media can be deafening. They’ll likely receive thousands of mentions each hour which makes it difficult for CEO communication teams to know when to respond (if at all). To overcome this challenge, many brands use media intelligence tools such as Meltwater.

Media intelligence allows companies to cut through the noise by offering a high-level overview of the critical social media conversions they need to worry about. That way, CEO communication teams can see if there are trends emerging around certain issues. We’d also recommend setting up media alerts for certain influential accounts like United Nations so the CEO is not only aware whenever they post about certain topics that are aligned with their agenda, but they can also engage and demonstrate their subject matter expertise.

Interested in setting media alerts up for your company? and we'll be in touch to discuss.

A man sitting in a car, holding a mobile to his ear

Follow the below engagement tips to enhance communications:

  1. Be transparent, honest, and open, but don’t over promise and under deliver
  2. Use real-life citizens/user-generated stories. Case studies are important for all organizations as they align our talk with our actions.
  3. Understand what different stakeholders and audience segments care about, then use this insight to direct messaging.
  4. Create a CEO communications content calendar, this will help focus communications and ensure outreach is aligned with wider corporate goals. Fortunately, most social media management tools come with integrated content calendars and post-scheduling features.
  5. Increase engagement by analyzing the times and days when the majority of followers are active. Sufficient social media management tools like the Meltwater Social Media Management Suite will analyze this metric on our behalf.
  6. Cultivate a recognizable tone of voice, because let’s face it, sounding like a machine or a press release is anything but engaging. We need to show our audience that there are real people behind the profile who are just like them. Having an authentic voice on social media helps position and humanize our organization while making our posts more recognizable.

3 Create an action agenda

With consumers wanting corporate action from CEOs, and investors expecting the same, companies need to put short and long-term action plans in place that accelerate engagement with and solve global challenges.

If a brand is looking to up engagement on societal issues, here are a few pointers to follow before starting.

First things first, when a CEO decides what issues they’re going to take leadership on, they must ensure it aligns with their overall business strategy. The action agenda needs to drive organizational transformation in response to the global challenges, so choosing an issue that’s relevant to the company’s operating area is critical.

Examples of issues CEOs are now taking public positions on include:

  • Climate change
  • Social injustice
  • Economic insecurity
  • Inequality
  • Technology change stirring up issues around data ownership, privacy, ethics, and trust
  • Unemployment
  • Geopolitical instability
  • Digitalization


A woman holding a sign saying "We Need Change" in the middle of a crowd/ protest.

Fully commit to the cause (and company purpose)

For CEO activism to be seen as credible, it's important to fully commit time and resources to the cause. Nowadays consumers don’t think twice about calling out companies for woke washing, so it's best to save face by practicing what we preach while also articulating why the issue is related to the company’s mission and values.

Consider the channels, messages, and tone of voice used

As Hubspot explains, the trustworthiness of CEO communications is measured on factors like the CEO's ability to provide audiences with a comprehensive understanding of key points and to take ownership of the message through personalized, active language. With this in mind, it's wise to conduct research into the topic your CEO communication is addressing. Gather facts, and keep up to date with current events.

Ensure messages are clear, transparent, and consistent.

Several factors go into measuring the clarity of communication, but the simplest way to think about it is in terms of structure: a clear communicator uses simple sentence structures and everyday language to break complex issues into an easy-to-follow path of cause and effect.

Have a crisis plan in place

Media inquiries, social media activity, employee questions, and NGO backlash are all but guaranteed when CEOs speak up against politically charged issues because, unfortunately, alienating segments of our stakeholders is unavoidable since not everyone is going to agree with our stance. In light of this, we'd highly suggest having a crisis communications plan in place, especially for social media.

4 Become customer-obsessed, not just customer-focused

Customer centricity is an approach that ensures the audience - and not profit- is at the center of a business's philosophy, operations, and ideas. The aim of becoming customer-centric is to create a positive experience by maximizing offerings and building relationships. If this is done right, profit will naturally flow. When CEO Communications keep their customer as the true North, it shows the CEO understands the alignment between what customers expect and what their organization is delivering, and as a result of their obsessive pursuit of customer satisfaction, CEO trust improves.

A hand holding a phone with local shop reviews

Customer centricity tips for CEO Communications

  1. Understand that not all customers are the same. Uses audience data to extract insights that help spark relevant engagement and foster meaningful relationships. Aim to 1 billion one-to-one relationships with consumers through hyper-personalised, purposeful dialogue.
  2. Break down silos and make sure that customer data is easily sharable and accessible internally.
  3. Understand what different stakeholders and audience segments care about, then use this insight in messaging.

Following the above tips will optimize CEO reputation management strategies and help your leadership team build relationships with stakeholders that can last these turbulent times. If you'd like to explore integrating media intelligence into your own CEO communications plan, reach out to us on the form below and we'll happily share more tips!