While many of the usual voices have been strangely quiet, CEOs have been filling leadership voids. Americans want the truth, and they believe they are often hearing it from CEOs.
Financial markets crashed weeks before the business shutdowns imposed by public officials to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. By now, the stock market plunged from the high for the worst performance since 1929.
With shattered confidence in the government, Americans often look to CEOs for faith in our system and often found it. It is the public actions of CEOs rather than the private-session White House gatherings of select financiers and biotech leaders that can rebuild public trust.
On March 13, President Donald Trump trotted out U.S. business titans, including the CEOs of Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and CVS Health, for an announcement on the government’s plan to expand the availability of coronavirus tests. The impact of their presence and message produced a whiplash of the stock surge in a single day—just a day after one of the greatest stock plunges in history. The tangible words and deeds of the series of individual CEOs are far more powerful in repairing public trust than private group lobbying sessions.
While we’ve not heard from familiar voices such as Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, and other high-profile business figures beyond mere media appearances, bold CEOs have spoken out with inspiring messages matched by actions. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson offered to pay employees for the next month whether or not they are able to come to work—and most still came out to Starbucks drive-thrus that remain open. Unilever CEO Alan Jope has promised to protect those within its workforce for up to three months, saying that it will cover employees, contractors, and others who it manages or who work on its sites, on a full- or part-time basis. Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta has connected workers from temporarily suspended hotels with hundreds of thousands of short-term jobs at companies such as Albertsons and Amazon. Employees want the truth, even if it is painful.
Employees also want to be informed about who has contracted the virus within the company and what needs to be done to prevent others from getting infected. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson has been brutally honest about the layoffs due to COVID-19 shutdowns, furloughing two-thirds of Marriott staff overseas, while cutting management wages.
Many CEOs have also partnered with the public sector to fill gaps quickly regarding public health needs and rising unemployment anxieties. From luxury goods to alcohol producers, businesses (such as Pernod Ricard and BrewDog) are opening their factories to produce hand sanitizer for local communities. HP CEO Enrique Lores donated 3D printers to local hospitals to help address the face mask shortage. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella offered the company’s health chatbot technology to the CDC. CEOs from Apple’s Tim Cook to Telsa’s Elon Musk have jumped in to fill a void by donating medical supplies.
This partnership with the government is what the public expects, according to a March Edelman study of 10,000 people, which found that 45% of respondents trust the private and public sectors to fight the virus together, more than double the number who trust the government alone. Respondents viewed their employers as better prepared to manage through this crisis than their government, by 49% to 43%. According to the study, nearly 80% of respondents expect their employer to take action to protect both the employee and the community. Nearly 60% fear politicization of the coronavirus crisis, and 85% want to hear from scientists, not politicians.
The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 92% of employees expect their CEO to speak out on issues of the day. As a result, the private sector must contribute to the information flow in a time of disbelief. Remarkably, when it comes to information about coronavirus, the firm’s March poll shows that communications coming from employers are believed more readily (63%), than from the government (58%) or traditional media (51%). There is an expectation of frequent communication; in fact, nearly two-thirds of respondents expect daily updates from their company. Social media is also deeply distrusted, with more than one-third of respondents saying that they would never trust social posts as a primary source.
COVID-19 struck at a moment when all institutions are facing a trust deficit—especially government and media. The political finger-pointing, false hopes over treatments, and belief that the government didn’t act quickly enough exacerbate the trust gap. The traditional job of the CEO, to make money and increase share prices, has been supplanted by a move toward stakeholder capitalism. The Business Roundtable declaration last August was a significant broadening of the CEO mandate. The challenge of COVID-19 is a perfect opportunity to prove that doing well is not antithetical to doing good.
Johnson & Johnson’s CEO James Burke said it well when he emphasized trust in companies: “We were cashing in on 100 years of trust that had been built up…[I]nstitutional trust is real, palpable, and bankable.” The value of leadership by the CEO cannot be overstated. We are at a moment when the private sector needs to fill the void in trust in government.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is senior associate dean and Lester Crown professor of management practice at the Yale School of Management.
Richard Edelman is CEO of Edelman.
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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
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