American CEOs Have a Reputation Problem, Survey Finds

GettyImages-500200935-compressorThe divisive nature of American politics has put many CEOs’ political views in the spotlight. And saying nothing about controversial policy moves, such as Donald Trump’s immigration ban, has proven to be just as unpopular with some members of the public as picking a side.

A new survey shows that many people have indeed become disillusioned with business leaders, who may or may not have espoused their own values. However, the negative extent of its findings suggest a deeper dimension to their dismay than pure partisanship.

According to a poll of 23,633 American adults conducted in November and December by Harris Poll, a startling 50% thought CEOs had a “bad reputation”. What’s more, only a quarter thought they had a “good” reputation, while the rest sat on the fence.

The results chime with those of another survey released last month by public relations firm Edelman, which found public trust in CEOs and other leaders, such as politicians, had “imploded”—partly due to concerns about threats to employment posed by globalization and automation.

“Vision and leadership are becoming increasingly important attributes regarding reputation. Respondents also cited “trusted”, “ethical” and “accountable” as more important traits for CEOs as “curious”, “visible”, “bold” and “risk takers”.

CEO credibility across the board has been further tarnished by corporate scandals that touched many aspects of people’s day-to-day lives, whether it was opening a bank account, buying a life-saving treatment or using a smartphone. Those directly responsible included Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Samsung, Takata and Mylan.

“Takata and Mylan are not household names, yet due to recent events, they are well known,” said Harris Poll’s Wendy Salomon. “It’s a clear indication of the level of understanding and engagement the public has in the granular details of crisis situations. Corporate behavior has become common dinner table conversation.”

All three factors driving what is an often unfair negative perception of CEOs—a divisive political climate, lack of trust in authority and corporate scandals—tend to feed off each other. Members of the public are far more likely to be enraged by an isolated corporate scandal, for instance, if they’re also worried about losing their job.

So what are CEOs to do?
It could help to focus on inherent strengths that people want them to convey. Harris Poll’s survey found that vision and leadership are becoming increasingly important attributes regarding reputation. Respondents, though, also cited “trusted”, “ethical” and “accountable” as more important traits for CEOs as “curious”, “visible”, “bold” and “risk takers”.

Salomon recommends that companies identify ways to demonstrate the value of their vision for the future, and clearly communicate how their team can make that vision a reality.

Some companies are more loved by the general public than others: Harris Polls ranks the reputation of America’s 100 most visible companies, and Amazon was No.1 this year. Rounding out the top five were Wegmans, Publix Super Markets, Johnson & Johnson and Apple. Tesla Motors debuted strongly, coming in at ninth.

At the bottom of the list was Takata, followed by Wells Fargo. Goldman Sachs, Monsanto and Halliburton, long targets of activists, also faired poorly.

No matter what CEOs do though, it’ll still be difficult to please everyone, perhaps increasingly so. Salomon said companies that take public stands are often perceived as more reputable by consumers of similar conservative or liberal views—and less so by those who feel otherwise. Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby, for example, both scored much higher on its reputation scale among Republicans, while Target scored highly among Democrats.

“Values play a bigger role than ever before in corporate reputation, and the business significance of a company’s reputation has never been higher,” said Mark J. Penn, managing partner at Harris Poll-owner The Stagwell Group. “As the red versus blue duel of politics impacts corporate reputation, we expect to see more alignment along party beliefs.”

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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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