How leaders’ reputations can either shine or decline during COVID-19

Those who’ve responded to this crisis with empathy, generosity and genuine warmth have reaped profound reputational rewards.

How CEOs can lead by example

As CEOs scramble to handle major economic disruptions caused by COVID-19, their responses to the epidemic are skewing consumer sentiment toward their corporations and themselves.

In some cases, sentiment toward CEOs fell dramatically. In other instances, CEO reputations improved markedly, new research shows.

The CEO Leaderboard produced by communications firm SJR ranked public perceptions of Fortune 100 CEOs and how those perceptions changed over the course of the pandemic.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos fell from ranking 59 to 98. Amazon suffered well-publicized employee walk-outs and employee complaints of unsafe working conditions. Bezos used Instagram — to release a video that feels cold and distant, according to SJR.

Despite facing similar employee health issues, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon improved his ranking from 57 to 17. His visits to store and fulfillment centers, frequent social media posts, and appearances in a national television commercial promoted the perception that he cared about employees. SJR cites a post, apparently a selfie, in which McMillan praised Walmart personnel.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg rose from number 40 to No. 4. Nike CEO John Donahoe jumped from 18 to first on the list. Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, Google’s holding company, fell from 11 to 29, and Brian Roberts of Comcast fell from 24 to 39.

What successful corporate leaders do

Successful corporate leaders reacted with humility, empathy and direct communications on a human-level to employees, customers and other stakeholders, according to SJR. “Gone is the C-Suite view from 30,000 feet. CEOs are talking to us from their living rooms on video conferences to update on details big and small about how their companies are responding to every imaginable disruption.”

Retailers generally performed well. Of the top 25 CEOs, seven lead brick and mortar retailers — with five of those in the grocery trade. They had to act fast to address supply chain issues, customer hording, and the safety of front-line workers. Some of their strategies included:

  • Encouraging online ordering and new services, like curbside pickups.
  • Increasing employee pay and advocating on behalf of employees as essential workers.
  • Activating new healthcare services and becoming part of the diagnostic frontlines, with services like drive-thru testing made available to customers.
  • Pivoting entire brand campaigns to pandemic-relevant themes and activities.

Generational differences in consumer perceptions

Nearly six out of 10 consumers (58 percent) say their perception of brands has been affected during the epidemic, according to research from Social Media Link. Younger generations are more likely to change their views of brands than boomers. Millennials give high marks to brands that show empathy, those that extend benefits, and help the community. Boomers like brands that keep customers and employees safe and well. They also want clear and reassuring communication from brands more than other age groups.

Maintaining positive sentiment is key to future company growth because consumers are now more open to new products. More than half of consumers surveyed said they’ve bought products they’ve never tried before, and many are more open to switching to new brands.

“This is a formative time for consumers and brands alike. Brand affiliations and buying habits that were otherwise hardened, sometimes over decades, are being reshaped in-store and online,” says Susan Frech, CEO and co-founder of Social Media Link. “Marketers who jump at this opportunity to acquire new customers and invest in a brand infrastructure focused on loyalty and connection could find themselves in an advantageous position in the future.”

The measurement and analytics roadmap

PR and marketing experts say media measurement and analytics are essential to inform corporations about changing consumer preferences in the post-lockdown world. With the right measurement, PR and marketing teams will learn what customers think about their brands, how employees feel about their organizations, and how they can better communicate with those stakeholders. Organizations may need to overhaul their PR and marketing strategies, develop new messages, and perhaps new products and services to meet consumers’ new needs and preferences.

“It’s the organizations that do the research that will be the fastest to recover. The ones that operate in the dark may find their businesses are no longer viable,” says PR measurement guru Katie Paine, CEO of Paine Publishing.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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