C-Suite Reputation: The Good, The Bad and The Next Steps

C-Suite Reputation: The Good, The Bad and The Next Steps

By Steve Halsey and Linda Kane

There’s good news on the public opinion front for senior business leaders and the communicators who advise them: more Americans believe today’s C-suite is bold, innovative and doing a better job of responding to crisis situations.

That’s according to the 2016 G&S Global Street Fight Study released by G&S Business Communications (G&S) this week.

The annual study, conducted by Harris Poll for G&S, shows us that recovering confidence in business leadership is particularly strong among opinion elites. This influential sub-segment is twice as likely to say that senior leadership is stronger today than it was five years ago (19% in 2016 versus 10% in 2014). Even compared with just one year ago, they’re also twice as likely to describe senior leadership as “very innovative” and “very bold.”

But for all that senior business leaders are doing right in the fight to regain public confidence, the 2016 Global Street Fight Study also points to an opportunity that many are missing. To build trust among younger Gen Xers (ages 35 to 44) and millennials (ages 18 to 34), business leaders should be friending, tweeting and posting on social media.

Here are some of the key numbers:

  • 78% of Americans think senior leadership at large companies is stronger (12%) or about the same (66%) today compared to five years ago
  • 19% of opinion elites think it is stronger (versus 17% in 2015 and 10% in 2014)
  • 20% of opinion elites think senior leadership is very innovative (versus 11% in 2015 and 10% in 2014)
  • 20% of opinion elites think senior leadership is very bold (versus 10% in 2015)
  • 65% of opinion elites say senior leaders at large companies have responded to crisis situations very well or somewhat well in just the past year (up from 49% who said the same in 2015)

These data demonstrate a remarkable shift in the past 12 to 24 months, from a state of crisis-based reputation triage to today’s reputational rebound. But is it enough of an improvement to satisfy the C-Suite and, more importantly, the general public? While this year’s results paint a picture of recovering confidence among opinion elites and the general public, they also reveal that more can be done to build and grow reputational equity among millennials and Gen Xers.

Social disconnect

G&S joined forces with Harris Poll four years ago to probe public opinion of senior business leaders in the face of intense global competition and economic uncertainty. Each year, we track trends and take note of changes in public sentiment.

This year, we also looked at the public’s perceptions of senior leaders as they relate to social media. We wondered what, if anything, they wanted to see from senior leaders on these forums. We also probed whether or not widely held standards of transparency, openness and authenticity apply to the feeds of senior leaders. What we discovered is a huge disconnect between what the public wants on social media and what senior leaders give them.

Nearly two-thirds of the general public believe it’s at least somewhat important for senior leaders to be active on social media today. Three in five millennials (61%) and nearly half (47%) of younger Gen Xers follow the feed of at least one senior business leader. Yet the majority of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social media presence whatsoever. That’s particularly troubling when we consider that more than half of millennials (53%) and nearly half (47%) younger Gen Xers say they are more likely to trust information about a company when it comes via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Serious Stuff

Here’s another wrinkle: millennials and younger GenXers aren’t looking for selfies or personal anecdotes from business leaders, according to Carol Gstalder, consumer insights North America business leader at Nielsen and a co-author of the annual Global Street Fight Study.  What they want is company information from company leaders. When we look at the demographic breakouts, we see that millennials have a greater interest than the general public in company-related social media content from senior leaders, while opinion elites have the greatest interest.

Remarkably, all of these groups’ top three areas of interest are aligned with topics that help to shape company reputation:

  • 41% of millennials/36% of the general public/54% of opinion elites would like senior leaders to address their company’s vision.
  • 38% of millennials/35% of the general public/45% of opinion elites would like senior leaders to address their company’s products/services.
  • 35% of millennials/32% of the general public/42% of opinion elites would like senior leaders to address customer service issues and experiences.

In addition to placing more faith in company news on social media, 67% of millennials and 61% of younger Gen Xers view the senior leaders themselves as more trustworthy when they are transparent on social media. As communicators and reputation managers digesting these results, we have to ask ourselves: should our business leaders ride the reputational coattails of a recovering economy? Or should they get out in front, using today’s reputational uptick and the opportunity of social media to lay an even stronger foundation for tomorrow?

The survey has more good news for business communicators who’d like their CEOs and business presidents to get active on social media, but worry about the time and personal commitment it would require: only 16% of Americans equate a senior business leader’s active presence on social media with sharing personal stories and anecdotes. What’s more, only 28% of the American public equates a senior leader’s active presence on social media with personally managing his or her own account instead of using a ghostwriter or members of the communications team. Increasingly, it seems, the general public, millennials, and opinion elites alike view a senior business leader’s presence on social media as an endorsed point of view.

Emerging Battleground

Indeed, it appears that social media is an emerging battleground in the global street fight for corporate reputation. It’s a forum that gives the public a unique opportunity to see the company through the lens of its senior leaders, and for senior leaders to listen and learn through the lens of their stakeholders. This year’s Global Street Fight Study tells us it’s something the public craves. But, it’s not about telling personal stories and anecdotes. It’s about building stakeholder relationships and personally delivering company news with credibility, passion and a point of view.

Best of all, the public has given communicators a license to help manage these communications. People realize that CEOs are busy, that they set the tone and that anything that goes out under their name reflects their endorsement. As such, communicators can develop content calendars and make sure that senior leaders’ feeds reflect a litany of relevant topics. Communicators can also take some of a senior leader’s concerns about needing to be too personal on social media off the table.

It’s an interesting twist that the typical rules of social media don’t apply to the senior-most business leaders – at least not in the minds of a majority of Americans. That fact alone should make it easier for senior communicators to get their leaders to bolster their company’s reputation – one Tweet, post, like or share at a time.

About the Survey

The 2016 G&S Global Street Fight Study was conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of G&S Business Communications. The annual study explores consumer perceptions of CEOs. A total of 2,018 adults aged 18 and older were queried online within the United States from March 24 to March 29, 2016 via Harris Poll’s Quick Query omnibus product. For complete research method, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Mary C. Buhay, G&S Business Communications.

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    Steve Halsey is Managing Director, Business Consulting, G&S Business Communications. Global businesses and brands seeking a competitive edge rely on Steve to find the best paths forward. In his role, Steve helps launch new products; build, protect and manage reputations; explore new concepts and models; and map out winning strategies that allow clients to increase their market share. He challenges conventional wisdom for B2B and B2C companies, providing clients with increased brand value, awareness with target audiences and loyalty. Steve also oversees the agency’s digital and social media initiatives as well as research, insights and analytics teams, and he established G&S’ proprietary I Power™ strategy and messaging service. He is a member of the International Association of Business Communicators and Public Relations Society of America. An avid rugby player, Steve moves with agility to execute projects with powerful models that elevate brands.


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