Today’s Hated CEOs: Can They Change Perceptions?

The giant banks on Wall Street and the Big 3 automakers have done a very poor job (to be charitable) of making their case to the American people. How can their CEOs communicate more effectively to start winning the hearts and minds of angry Americans?

Some basics are called for:
Be honest about your failure. An honest appraisal of failure is always welcome, leading to a humble review of what has been learned to solve problems. Leaders who speak with humility have a better chance of being trusted over time to work for the common good with integrity and transparency. (In baseball’s steriod scandal, compare Andy Pettite’s response to Mark McGuire’s.) Business leaders have a long way to go to reverse their image as selfish, mean spirited, and not as smart as they think they are… but honesty paves the way.

Address people’s needs and feelings. Every communication should focus on the consumers’ perspective, notably the pain of the economic downturn on “Main Street.”  You may be a CEO of a big company but if you can’t identify and express your understanding of the plight of everyday folks, well, you have no business being at the helm.

A strong and healthy America matters to everyone. Whether you represent a bank or a car company, you must make it clear that we’re all fighting for the same thing – our future. Banks and automakers should also remind the public (gently) that they helped build America with capital and cars, making the U.S. a prosperous, mobile and freer nation. Now it’s time to face new challenges together.

Be specific about plans. What exactly are you going to do to bring your company back to financial health to serve the public more effectively?  HOW will banks reach out to people and free up credit for individuals and businesses?  HOW will car companies meet specific consumer needs and become more competitive through technology, fuel efficiency, performance and design?  A one-off speech won’t be enough. Companies must develop a concerted, thoughtful, multi-pronged campaign to communicate plans – in a spirit of cooperation with the American people.

Be real. The reputation of these giant companies is in tatters right now. But consistently, over time, CEOs must speak clearly and directly about the realities: Corporations are not just monoliths. They’re made up of employees who are a big part of the solution and want to improve the lives and lifestyles of their fellow Americans. Banks make it possible for people to buy houses and realize personal and business goals. Automakers provide mobility and freedom, but they’re also making ambulances that save lives, trucks that haul needed goods to your town, and military transports that protect our soldiers far away. The underlying message: again, we’re all in this together.

Honest, plain speaking can be a bridge between high-profile CEOs and the rest of us.

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