Implications for Corporate Communications
By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President
If you think members of Congress are the only ones with ultra-low approval ratings, think again. While most Americans have a favorable opinion of major companies, they don’t much like the executives who run them. In fact, only 6 percent believe CEOs have high ethical standards, according to a new study on American attitudes about business. Forty-eight percent believe top executives have low standards for honesty.
The Public Affairs Pulse — a nonpartisan survey of 1,753 American adults commissioned by the Public Affairs Council and conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International — ranks CEOs’ honesty and ethics just behind those of public officials in Washington and just ahead of those of state and local government officials. All three categories receive extremely low scores. The highest scores for ethics are given to small business owners.
To make matters worse, when asked whose interests most major companies put first, the largest percentage of respondents (43 percent) answer “their top executives.”
These data present major challenges for corporate communications professionals who support their CEO’s role as the major emissary or spokesman with employees, local communities, investors and the news media. After all, if the public already assumes CEOs can’t be trusted, are they likely to have faith in a top executive announcing a corporate restructuring, a merger, a change in pricing policy or the construction of a power plant?
While CEOs still must publicly represent companies, communications professionals may want to consider new strategies when faced with controversial announcements. One of these strategies may be to make greater use of rank-and-file employees in personalizing messages associated with corporate decisions. This can be done through advertising, media outreach and ally development campaigns. According to the Public Affairs Pulse, 28 percent of Americans think non-management employees of major companies have high ethical standards, and only 12 percent think they have low standards.
If a corporate decision (for example, to open a new pipeline) provides benefits for local small businesses, owners of those firms ought to play a prominent role in building public support as well. That’s because 47 percent of Americans give them high marks for honesty and ethics, and only 7 percent give them low marks.
When it comes to confronting a corporate crisis, however, no one can take the place of a CEO. Major companies need to make their top executives available to answer questions about what happened and what they intend to do about it. Fifty-nine percent of respondents to the Public Affairs Pulse survey say this approach would do “a lot” to make them feel the company is doing the right thing. An additional 31 percent say it would still help “a little.”
While this is a tactic many communicators advocate, they are frequently overruled by company lawyers concerned that public interviews or apologies will place the firm in legal jeopardy.
And speaking of apologies, 81 percent of Americans say a public apology from a top executive would be a positive step when a company is facing a crisis of its own making.