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In Pod We Trust

Caliber’s CEO, Shahar Silbershatz, went on the Done & Doner podcast to discuss the pitfalls of having a highly visible CEO and how to build stakeholder trust in the age of the polycrisis. 

Listen to the episode on Spotify or watch it on YouTube. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.  

Bob Geller: Welcome to PR: Done & Doner. I’m your host, Bob Geller. Today, we’ll discuss company brands and executive brands. What do they mean? How are they measured? What’s the interplay between them? Can having a highly visible rockstar CEO, who’s emblematic of the company, help or hurt?

To answer these questions, we invited an expert in the field to join me. He’s had an illustrious and successful career in comms before cofounding Caliber, a Danish brand and reputation analytics firm. Please welcome Caliber CEO, Shahar Silbershatz. 

Shahar Silbershatz: Thanks for inviting me. 

Bob Geller: I think it’d provide good context for the topic at hand to get right to directly what you do, what your company does, its methods, and its technologies. 

Shahar Silbershatz: Caliber is a stakeholder intelligence platform. We provide a realtime dashboard for our customers, who tend to be corporate communicators and marketers, with brand and reputation metrics that get updated in realtime.

So it’s an alwayson continuous tracker of perceptions. And it’s based on surveys we conduct online every day across 50plus countries. The idea is to give our customers a sense of what people think about them, how they perceive them, what’s the impact of the activities they do and what’s the impact of external events, so they can better inform their communications and marketing activities, their stakeholder engagement activities and so on.  

Bob Geller: Who do you survey?  

Shahar Silbershatz: We use general public panels. We survey anybody — all people, all walks of life. But, of course, when we survey people and ask them for their opinions of companies, we want to make sure they’re sufficiently informed about those companies.

So we screen people by level of familiarity with those companies. And of course, we dive into different segments within the panel. So we also look at perceptions of customers, potential employees, relevant talents, opinion leaders, influencers, journalists, investors, analysts, regulators, policymakers and so on. So it’s a mix in a sense of everybody, but we start out with the general public panel and then drill down.  

Bob Geller: Do you have to recruit these panelists? Do you have a database? Do you use somebody else’s database?  

Shahar Silbershatz: We use somebody else’s panels, which are, as you say, a database. We work with research vendors around the world. We have a few partners that cover the whole world for us.

They have large panels of respondents who sign up and agree to be invited to do these online surveys. We don’t have to recruit them ourselves. Our survey platform is plugged into those research vendors’ databases so we can invite their people to our surveys. 

Bob Geller: How long have you folks been doing this?  

Shahar Silbershatz: For about six years now.  

Bob Geller: Who are your clients? What kind of clients do you have? 

Shahar Silbershatz: They tend to be large enterprises, typically multinationals, but also domestic players. We started out in Denmark and originally had Danish and Nordic clients, then expanded into Germany, the UK and the rest of Europe, and then to the US and Brazil.

Our clients typically operate in sectors that are perhaps more regulated or more scrutinized, where they want to pay more attention to their reputation and stakeholder perceptions. So they could be in financial services, pharmaceuticals, energy, but also FMCG, automotive, aerospace, and tech.

We work with CocaCola in the US, Airbus in France and Audi in Germany. We work with those types of companies around the world — Electrolux, Ericsson, E.ON — typically either regional or multinational players within those sectors.  

Bob Geller: So it’s large enterprises versus SMBs or startups, correct? 

Shahar Silbershatz: Correct. One reason is that we need those companies to be highly familiar so we can actually have people who are sufficiently familiar with them. But also because those typically are companies that have corporate communication departments and actually pay attention to reputation and use reputation measurement tools. 

Bob Geller: Now that makes a lot of sense. Do you ever study issues versus brands and names?  

Shahar Silbershatz: For sure, yeah. We have access to a lot of perception data, and we have full control over the interviews and surveys we conduct. We often ask other questions to understand different patterns and trends that are happening. We ask people different questions with regard to their general attitude to certain things, like industry issues. We often ask about what people want companies to address in specific sectors, people’s general optimism regarding the economy and different topics.

Of course, sustainability comes up quite a lot within certain sectors. In, say, the automotive sector, it could be electrification within energy, it could be the green transformation.

So a lot of these topics come up and we try to understand what people expect in general from businesses. And then sometimes we do something a little bit unusual like where we looked at the reputation of CEOs as well. 

Bob Geller: That sounds great. Everybody who’s out there at a marketing company who wants to have a brand, or has a brand, and wants to take the pulse, the temperature, of that brand, there are different ways of doing that.

Could you compare and contrast what you do versus, say, those who tend to look at online reputation? How are you different?  

Shahar Silbershatz: Good question. We — me and Caliber’s other founders —come from the research side of reputation. We used to do traditional research studies once a year. We’d do an annual stakeholder study for a company, and that’s a pretty large exercise. It takes a long time and it’s pretty expensive.

And by the time you get the results, it’s a few months later because you’ve conducted a lot of interviews, sometimes face-to-face or phone interviews. It took a while to recruit people. We realized over time that it’s not very actionable because if you come back once a year with some results, it’s very hard to understand why scores went up or down and what the company is doing to trigger a loss of trust or gain of trust. So that’s one of the other alternatives, using traditional research, quarterly, annually or ad hoc. But the lack of continuity makes it very non-actionable. And this is why we’re doing it differently – on a daily basis.

But then, as you said, a lot of companies use different online tools. There are a lot you can use, and they can be cheaper and faster. Of course, social listening is quite popular today. There’s a lot of that going on. You can get a much more realtime sense of what people say is your reputation.

We would argue that it’s not really your reputation if you’re scraping the web or listening to people on social media. You’re picking up the vocal people. You’re not necessarily listening to the right people. Those are not people who represent your stakeholder universe. So the data is not necessarily accurate or representative. In that sense, it cannot really form a very solid and statistically valued KPI. What we’re trying to do is focus on something that is statistically a lot more robust, a lot more stable, and a lot more representative of your stakeholder universe.  

Bob Geller: Right. And of course, there’s always a chance they’re looking at the activity of bots or maybe disinformation campaigns.  

Shahar Silbershatz: That’s another issue that’s cropped up recently — that when you start scraping and listening, more and more you pick up fake voices, you pick up bots, and it’s very hard to tell online, on those social media channels, what’s real and what’s not.

Whereas if you interview real people, and you know those people exist because they’ve been verified and quality assured by the panel providers, you can verify there’s a physical person behind it and you can do a lot more quality assurance on that. 

Bob Geller: That makes a lot of sense. It’s about signal versus noise. And I agree there’s no substitute for a real survey, the more frequent the better, as you folks do.

But stepping back and looking at the topic at hand, we met through PR. I first heard of your work by reading a CNN story. What it said essentially was that while some may perceive the recent poor performance of Tesla as related to a downturn in the EV market, it’s actually the opposite — that Tesla is being a drag on the market, and there could be a connection between Tesla’s problems and the reputation of its infamous leader, Elon Musk, and it cited data from Caliber to make this argument. Do I have this right so far? 

Shahar Silbershatz: Yeah, you do. 

Bob Geller: Is there anything maybe you can share with the audience just a bit more about the survey — what it revealed and what we can conclude from it?  

Shahar Silbershatz: A bit unexpectedly, this came out of one of our thought leadership initiatives. Because we’re sitting on so much data, running these interviews, we have millions of data points accumulating all the time across the whole world of what a lot of people think about a lot of companies and a lot of topics.

We often use that data to detect patterns or tell interesting stories as a basis for our thought leadership. Last December, we thought it would be interesting to also check the reputation of some high-profile or visible CEOs and compare them to the reputation of their companies and see if there’s any link that we can detect.

We decided to go for the tech sector in the US because that’s a pretty visible sector with almost celebrity CEOs. So we did a short study where we asked people about a range of CEOs. We asked a lot of questions, but one of the things that we realized is that there’s a connection in some cases between the CEO’s reputation and their respective company’s reputation.

And of course that was the case for Elon Musk more than others. He had a very low reputation and the patterns, the different indicators, reflected the pattern of Tesla’s and more so Twitter’s, or X’s, reputation. So that was kind of interesting.

We published an article about that and pitched it to some media outlets and there was a Reuters reporter who back in December-January was writing about the drop in sales of Teslas in California. She thought that piece of information was interesting and used it.

Then, of course, she came back to us in March because at that point everybody was talking about Tesla’s commercial downturn. She wanted more data from us because we’re tracking things continuously, and she wanted to know whether we were seeing that downturn in reputation as well, which we were.

We provided some more data, and she put it into an article suggesting it’s potentially Musk’s reputation that’s dragging down Tesla’s reputation. And the data was definitely there to establish that. So she wrote a piece that got picked up by a lot of outlets, including CNN 

Bob Geller: Well, I guess you can connect it. If you ask the right question, you can ask people if Elon Musk’s reputation is holding people back from buying one of his cars, I guess. It’s causation versus association, right? 

Shahar Silbershatz: It’s a tricky thing because correlation is not causation, as everybody knows, and sometimes when you see similar patterns, it doesn’t mean that one is causing the other.

But there were a few telltale signs. Like, for example, X’s reputation, or Twitter’s reputation, has taken a dive since Musk took it over. That was very clear from our data. We’ve been tracking it for a while.

Even though we didn’t have continuous data on Musk, we had continuous data on the companies for the CEOs. We did kind of an ad hoc study in December, but if we split the data by demographics, political affiliations and other characteristics, we could see similar splits.

So, for example, Musk is more popular among Republicans and Democrats, and we could see some some similar patterns happening with Twitter, which were different from how Twitter was before.

So we could see there was definitely an impact by the CEO on the company, not the other way around. Of course, it’s easy in the case of Musk because he’s also been very vocal and visible around it, and also very controversial.

We don’t actually ask people, do you like this company or not because of the CEO? The first thing we ask is, do you even know whose company this person is the CEO of? And, by the way, most people don’t know most of the CEOs. It’s only Musk and Zuckerberg who people can actually connect with their companies. The rest, people just don’t know.  

Bob Geller: Everyone in this audience likely knows a good PR story and we’re talking now about how the sausage gets made. Pay close attention. It’s a good way to start, Reuters and CNN, and I’m assuming you had other media hits from all this. So I have a couple of questions.

First of all, our clients sometimes have survey information or data from their systems that they want to package into a media pitch. It seems like you have a very highly successful content marketing operation. Can you share anything at all about what you folks do?  

Shahar Silbershatz: When it comes to using our data for content, which is what we do all the time because we are a data company, there’s data that’s interesting for our customers, of course, and that’s what we focus on.

But as we collect data for our customers, we also notice things that are happening in an industry, or we notice the impact of geopolitical events or macro events, and those have an appeal to a wider audience. So we try to collect data and identify different trends or patterns that we think will have wider appeal. And that’s what we try to pitch.

It has to be very timely. It has to relate to something that’s happening. For example, when the Ukraine war started, or when COVID happened, these things had a massive impact on companies’ reputations. So we tried to understand what that impact is, and that becomes very interesting for the public beyond our customer universe. That’s what we try to pitch.

Also, when you have very high-profile crises or things that are happening for a certain company. Like, last year there was an autoworkers union strike in the US. That had a massive impact on the reputation of companies there, and that’s something we also pitched to the media because it was timely and it was interesting. It had a wider appeal.

That, for us, is the secret sauce, so to speak. And we don’t always get it right, by the way. This one was a nice success story. But the recipe is to try to detect which data points could be interesting for something that’s happening right now that has a wide appeal and to tell a good story around that.  

Bob Geller: Sounds like a newsjacking campaign on steroids. We do newsjacking and it takes five minutes. It’s probably much more complicated the way you do it. Can you quickly get the results you need to jump on a story?  

Shahar Silbershatz: Yes, and that’s the benefit of having an alwayson system. We can newsjack and get data very quickly if we want to if something’s happening.

It’s not always easy because you also want the data to be statistically valid. You have to make sure you’re not giving out something that’s too rash and based on insufficient samples.

But yes, we try to do some newsjacking when we can. But we also try to tell bigger stories. The second anniversary of the Ukraine war happened a couple of months ago, and for us, it was an opportunity to look at how it has affected companies’ reputations and their action or inaction around the Ukraine war, in the longer term. That’s not so much newsjacking. It is a little bit because people are talking about the second anniversary of the war. But we’re trying to look at the bigger picture and enrich the debate around it. 

Bob Geller: Do journalists ever request a custom slice of data? Do journalists ever put you to work and say, if you have this… 

Shahar Silbershatz: Yes, we get some of that. You’ll know better than me, but the thing with journalists is that they get bombarded with pitches, and they also get a lot of free data.

So coming to them and saying, here, I have free data for you, it’s not as appealing anymore. We don’t hear back when we do that. So sometimes we kind of need to strike a relationship or say something that’s interesting enough. And then we might get a comeback saying, okay, can you actually tell me more because that would be interesting if I could know something else.

And we also got it a little bit around the tech CEO study that we did. Some companies were asking, well, how about some competitors that are not American, how does that reflect there? And we do sometimes get questions where they ask us for more data. And in some cases, we’re happy to generate it, too, because again, it’s easy for us to generate data very quickly.

So sometimes we do that, but I think the trick is to, to really get their attention, um, and then have a dialogue and then see if we can give more data that would be interesting for them. We don’t get that that much, but we try.  

Bob Geller: Some of the knock against surveys — which I think are the ultimate thing for really understanding perceptions and attitudes — is that it’s very expensive. What would you say to that?  

Shahar Silbershatz: That’s obviously changed now because the way we do it is automated. It’s all online. It’s all quantitative. Those are short interviews. It’s a commodity business.

Having panels and paying for interviews has become a lot cheaper. If you have a setup like we do, where a lot of the work is automated, generating data based on surveys is much cheaper than it used to be.  

Bob Geller: Are you ever worried about any blowback from folks who didn’t get a good score? I’m thinking of the “In Tech We Trust” blog post where you have extensive research about maybe a dozen CEOs and not all of it was rosy. 

Shahar Silbershatz: Well, we always say, “Don’t shoot the messenger”, right? We’re giving unbiased data. We’re asking other people. This is not our opinion. We can always interpret the data based on what we know.

Do we get blowback? Sometimes companies don’t like what we write about them. And when we write we try to be fair. We don’t knock people or companies down. We basically say, “This is what this company is experiencing.”

Sometimes there’s also a good story of how a company recovered from a crisis, so what we think could help the company based on the drivers or levers we’re seeing. In a sense, we’re the messenger and we try to help companies and the media with data that can give more factual information.  

Bob Geller: That makes a lot of sense. Having said all this, and you’ve studied this area well, what do you think is a net positive and net negative of having a very highly visible CEO who’s singularly associated with a company? 

Shahar Silbershatz: In the past, it probably used to be more positive than it is today. I mean, when you think about the Richard Bransons and the Steve Jobs of the world, you used to have these superstar CEOs whose halo is being rubbed off on the company.

And I think today it’s different. I would say today it’s probably a liability to have a highly visible CEO. Of course, I’m not talking about specific stakeholders like investors or journalists. They want to see the CEO more visible. They are perhaps a more informed stakeholder group.

But if you talk about the public in general, it’s very tricky because being visible often means pissing somebody off. It’s a highly polarized world today. So if you’re highly visible and you’re talking about social-political issues, you’re going to polarize people to some extent.

And as I mentioned before, we’re seeing a lot of polarization in the results. So if you’re highly visible, you’re more likely to be connected to your company. If you’re highly visible, you’re likely to talk about controversial issues. Hence, you’re likely to negatively impact the company.  

Bob Geller: As you said, it’s a polarized world. Public discourse, especially online, has gotten very poisonous and reactive, so it’s a challenging time to be out there, in the public eye, no question about it. But is there anything you wanted to say about the In Tech We Trust study?  

Shahar Silbershatz: Well, the tech sector has its own problems, before we get to the CEO part. Big Tech has been taking a lot of flak over the last few years around data privacy and all kinds of issues.

And that’s something we’ve been noticing for a while, that the tech industry used to be highly reputable. We look at many sectors — we also track sectors, not just companies. We track about 16 sectors and the tech sector used to be fairly favorable in terms of public opinion compared to sectors like banking, pharma, chemicals and telecoms, which were more scrutinized and less favorable.

But what’s happened, especially because of Big Tech over the last few years, is that you suddenly have questions of regulation and whether the industry is actually living up to its role because it’s becoming much, much stronger.

And you can see from the data that opinions are becoming more split and people are becoming more negative about the sector in general. Then, when it comes to the CEOs, what’s interesting is that we asked people’s opinions around 10 companies and 10 CEOs and in most cases, the CEOs had a lower reputation than their company.

Almost consistently the personalities had a worse reputation, or a lower Trust & Like Score, which is what we use as a proxy for reputation — to what extent people trust and like you. The reputation score, the Trust & Like Score, was lower for the CEOs.

There were a couple of exceptions around that. I think Uber was one exception and Alphabet was another, where the CEO had a better reputation than the company. But for all the others, it was the opposite.

First of all, that suggests the first reason why it’s a problem being a visible CEO in the tech sector —apparently people don’t like them that much. But we can also see that when it comes to the tech sector — and again, a leader of an Alphabet is not the same as a leader of a scale-up, so you have to think about the distinction based on the size of your company and what exactly you do within tech, as it’s not the same for everybody — there are certain leaders whose reputation was very negative, like Jeff Bezos, who has a very low reputation. 

Bob Geller: That surprised me, by the way, because he hasn’t gotten himself in a lot of obvious trouble like some of the others, but there you have it.  

Shahar Silbershatz: That’s very interesting, but the real difference here, as opposed to Zuckerberg and Musk and some of the others, is that the reputation of Amazon is stellar. They have a very high Trust & Like Score in the US.  

Bob Geller: Ask people who work there, by the way.  

Shahar Silbershatz: Let’s not even go there. But there’s a massive gap between the reputation of Amazon and the reputation of Jeff Bezos. And a lot of Americans, 44 percent to be exact, do connect Bezos and Amazon.

It’s not an issue if people don’t connect the two, because for a lot of other companies that’s the issue. Here, that’s not the issue. What we ended up concluding is that Jeff Bezos is apparently not liked very much, not because of controversial statements or opinions that he’s voiced, but probably because of other personal reasons.

It could be his highprofile divorce. It could be the fact that he has made so much money, maybe accumulated too much power. But it’s not stuff that’s directly connected to the company. He’s not voicing opinions that make people connect him with the company and what the company’s thinking or doing.

In that sense, his negative repetition hasn’t rubbed off on the company. So sometimes, even if you’re visible, it’s better to be visible around areas that are not directly connected to your company — again, when it comes to the public, not when it comes to investors, and in that sense, you kind of shield the company from yourself a little bit.

But I don’t want people to draw the conclusion that a CEO needs to fly under the radar and have a very low profile. A visible CEO, or at least a CEO who stands behind a company’s purpose and what the company’s doing, is typically a positive thing.

It’s positive when it comes to employees. It’s positive when it comes to talent. It’s positive when it comes to B2B stakeholders, people who might be working with you as suppliers, customers or prospects.

So the visible CEO is important and it’s especially important if you want to showcase what you’re doing and saying and show the leader is standing behind that. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing to be at the front of the company.

I would just say that when it comes to the public at large, if you’re going to take a public stance or public opinion and put yourself out there, you have to watch what you talk about and make sure you don’t get into any controversy that’s connected to your company. 

Bob Geller: That makes a lot of sense. The question is also about having one executive who’s singly associated with the company and whether that’s a good thing or not. 

Shahar Silbershatz: I think there are pros and cons, of course, if you have one executive who’s associated with the company because people are prone to make mistakes. They’re human. You always have the risk if a company is too associated with a person that while it can do something positive for the company, it can also do something negative.

In general, you want your leadership to be visible. You want to have it dispersed as much as possible, and you want to put forward the right spokespersons. For example, we had a client, a pharmaceutical company that was very much in the news and under a lot of scrutiny during COVID, because it was one of the vaccine manufacturers, and the CEO was a very polarizing figure. They put him out in public many times to talk about the issue and he didn’t do a good job of it.

He actually hurt the company’s reputation quite a lot. So they looked at the data and realized he probably shouldn’t be a spokesperson around this issue and that they should probably put forward some scientists to talk a bit more about the science and the technical aspects rather than the CEO. And those scientists did a much better job at being the spokesperson. So it’s sometimes dependent on the situation.  

Bob Geller: Well, this is fantastic. It’s really useful information and I think our audience is going to appreciate it. Anything else you’d like to add? 

Shahar Silbershatz: We covered it pretty well. You know, reputation is a bit fickle, right? It’s a tricky area because, as they say, it takes a long time to build it and you can lose it in five minutes.

The world we live in today is very different, from a reputation perspective, from many perspectives, than the world we lived in 20 or 30 years ago. The problem today is that there are constantly crises happening. There are constantly things happening in the world that are affecting how people view you as a company.

You know, 20 years ago, if there was a war somewhere, it didn’t really affect how people see you. If there was legislation in some country about social issues, it didn’t affect you as a company. Today it does. Everything that’s happening today affects you as a company, as a business, if you’re a big business.

If I were to leave you and your listeners with one thought, it’s that you have to be very attuned to what’s happening in the world around you, even if it has nothing to do with your business or your sector, because you’re required to have an opinion about a lot of things.

You’re basically looked up to and listened to when it comes to your opinions on wider issues. And you have to take action when it comes to different geopolitical events. And that’s very tricky because you can very easily annoy people, make mistakes or say the wrong thing. So it’s a world where you have to be much more careful but also react pretty fast to what’s happening rather than keep a low profile because that’s also not a good strategy.  

Bob Geller: Brilliant insight. What all that means is you have to have a great comms team around you. 

Shahar Silbershatz: Exactly. And a good repetition measurement tool.