CEOs in hiding

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Of all the market research that flows across my screen every day, nothing stopped me in my tracks quite like the findings of this year's Edelman Trust Barometer. The respected survey of more than 26,000 citizens around the world found that less than one in five now believes a business or governmental leader will tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue. When congressional approval ratings dropped below 20% last year, it made national headlines. This is a bona fide reputational crisis. People are blaming everything from the banking crisis to Lance Armstrong for this surge of skepticism, but I'd suggest that a more basic force is at work. We are entering an age of unprecedented transparency driven by the Internet, and most business leaders are still cowering in the shadows. But we can't run away from our deceptions and failures. Websites ranging from The Consumerist to to now gleefully document institutional screw-ups A snapshot of Twitter activity around the dreaded #fail hash tag showed 150 tweets in a five-minute stretch one recent afternoon. AIG's upbeat campaign about its citizen-funded turnaround was undermined by attacks on blogs and Twitter over reports that it might sue the federal government (it didn't). In short, executive misdeeds have become the new spectator sport. And where are business leaders amid all the heckling? Hiding. Among CEOs of the world's 50 largest companies, only nine have any kind of presence on social networks, according to Weber Shandwick's ”Socializing Your CEO” report, which was released at almost the same time as Edelman's. While there have been some gains in CEO sociability over the last two years, most activity has been limited to scripted appearances in videos, which are the least interactive of any social medium. And it isn't just CEOs. In my dealings with corporate executives at companies of all sizes, I find the greatest reticence to engage online comes from the people highest in the organization. There's no time, they complain, and they have people to manage that stuff. Poppycock. The real problem is an old-media mindset that hides people behind faceless brands. But people don't relate to logos; they relate to other people. CEOs are charged with communicating the values of the company to stakeholders. Today that's easy, but fear still holds many of them back from the harsh light of direct customer engagement. That fear hasn't kept General Electric Co.'s Jeff Immelt, Virgin's Richard Branson and News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch from talking directly to customers. Is there a risk? Sure, and that's what marketing and PR organizations are paid to deal with. Evasion will be less of an option as more executives go online. A skeptical public demands it.
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