One Key to Managing Executive Reputation

Matthias Müller is the CEO of Volkswagen. He has been at VW for over 40 years and has held impressive positions in its various divisions, recently leading Porsche. Unfortunately, a Google search of his name reveals numerous articles criticizing his missteps, demanding his resignation, and suggesting what he could be doing better. 

Müller was appointed CEO in 2015 after his predecessor resigned following the emissions scandal. Mr. Muller’s personal reputation has been challenged greatly since taking on the role of CEO.

A search of his name reveals numerous articles criticizing his missteps, demanding his resignation, and suggesting what he could be doing better. The criticisms are real and relevant; and at the moment, they are almost the only content readily available on search about Mr. Muller.

How does it happen that an accomplished senior executive can have his entire career overshadowed by a single event with seemingly no way to recover?

The algorithms that determine the search results we will see, are designed to satisfy the maximum number of searchers. Google doesn’t know exactly what you want to read, so it provides a variety of possibilities, using data to constantly fine tune its understanding of what you are most likely to want to consume. The results we see end up being an algorithmically-generated mix of different types of content, often including corporate, news, Wikipedia, social media, images and blogs.

The danger in this system is that search results are often weighted toward content that elicits the greatest response – the most clicks and shares – rather than the results that tell the most significant story. This means that the story about a misstep or misstatement by an executive may sit at the top of the search results for that person, even after they have given many additional, and more significant, speeches. In this way, search is starting to look like tabloid news media, where readers and viewers are only given a portion of the full picture.

The problem with click-inducing content

For CEOs and other prominent executives, the prominence in search on the most click-inducing content can be particularly challenging. Often, this means that searching for a successful CEO leads to prominent stories about their corporate compensation or personal wealth. It may also mean an unwanted focus on their personal relationships. An article challenging the executive’s decision, even if outdated, will often outrank other articles that focus on the executive’s successes.

For stakeholders, this means that when they seek more information about this executive, they are presented with an unbalanced view that is summed up neatly on a Google search page. Rather than reading about the individual’s leadership values and corporate successes, viewers are, instead, guided towards the most salacious headlines.

Combating this trend with the ‘content superfood’ of executive reputation

The traditional tactics for combating this trend include publishing content on owned web properties, utilizing social media where appropriate, proactively engaging traditional and online media with positive stories, and ensuring there is a deliberate plan to take control over how you want to be viewed online by stakeholders. With a variety of relevant content pieces, Google’s algorithm is much more likely to choose favorable content.

Whilst traditional tactics can influence search back in your favor, there is another way which we would describe as the ‘content superfood’ of executive reputation. This is thought leadership.

Thought leadership is the way Elon Musk is seeking to change the world through innovative energy solutions; it’s Bill Gate’s Giving Pledge that all but shames billionaires into doing the right thing. When a successful business leader shares his or her ideas – we listen. If the ideas are compelling, we are likely to be influenced, and the conversations that ensue can be far more engaging and interesting than a standard clickable article.

Change the conversation

Effective thought leadership enables executives to change the conversation from being about them to being about their ideas.  Sharing ideas creates conversation, discussion and debate. Whilst ideas can divide us, they can also inspire us. Great thought leadership focuses on areas that allow the speaker to tap into their true passions, while focusing on opinions and solutions that are likely to resonate with stakeholders.

Thought leadership may begin with announcing a new business or charity initiative; or it might be an opinion piece in the newspaper. Thought leadership is a proven successful tool for growing corporate or individual digital brands when your ideas engage your audience intellectually and emotionally.

By Sam Michelson, CEO & Founder, Five Blocks