British Bosses Should Fear Their 'Credibility Gulf' With the Public

21/06/2016 11:12 | Updated 21 June 2016

Last time you saw a big company boss interviewed on the TV, did you believe what they said? According to research commissioned by Media Training Associates from YouGov, there appears to be widespread public distrust of the pronouncements of the bosses of big businesses in the UK when called upon to justify their conduct in media interviews. 64% of British adults, from a survey of over 2000, said they thought business leaders generally appeared to be "evasive and unaccountable" when interviewed in the media at times when their business had been criticised , while only 10% said they generally appeared to be "open and accountable."

This is pretty shocking. In the wake of concerns about steel closures, pay and conditions at Sports Direct and the failure of British Home Stores, it suggests that the long-suspected credibility gap between the British public and company bosses appears in fact to be more of a credibility gulf. At a time when corporate reputation is being increasingly seen as a key driver of shareholder value, many spokespeople in both the private and public sectors are poor at getting their message across in the media. They miss the opportunity to set the agenda by talking in corporate jargon, and often appear to be obfuscating rather than answering legitimate questions, especially when the going gets tough.

We often coach business leaders who have to deal with the media, who are afraid they will be 'monstered' or made to look stupid. In fact I think the biggest risk is often that they are so keen to get their 'key messages' across that they forget about the necessity to be seen to be answering the question. Dissembling always makes people think you have something to hide. All company spokespeople will naturally try to emphasise the positive when interviewed, but instead of convincing audiences, the research suggests that too much spin is turning them off.
This matters because if companies can't engage effectively with the media, they will not be able to get across their views on matters of real interest and importance, whether a referendum campaign or anything else that might affect employment and business confidence. Far from being able to set the agenda, they will be at the mercy of events, and trends beyond their control.

Of course, in an age of social media, many people would argue that the 'mainstream media' doesn't matter any more, you can speak directly to your audience without any interference from meddling journalists. However, I don't buy that argument. The research also show how important TV, radio and newspapers remain, as the respected voice of reliable news according to the research. 79% of respondents told YouGov they believe TV and radio news bulletins are 'generally accurate', while this figure for broadsheet-style newspapers such as The Times, Guardian and Telegraph is not far behind, at 68%. Only 46% said they believe news items from online-only sources such as Buzzfeed and Google News were generally accurate.

I think this clearly suggests it is a mistake to suppose that you can sustain a dialogue with the public solely via social, or new media. To gain respect, and retain your reputation, you need to make your voice clearly heard through respected sources. Bosses need to work harder at learning to 'speak human,' sounding like real people who are dealing with the issues in a realistic way, being more honest about the problems they face, instead of simply repeating a series of 'key messages' in interviews while avoiding the tough questions.