Trust of CEOs Has Never Been Lower: Here Are 9 Tips on Communicating to Build Trust

Trust is the currency of leadership. It’s what inspires others to follow, support, and engage in a leader’s vision.

But there is troubling news on this front: this precious asset is in steady decline, with only 37% of the general population saying that CEOs are credible, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global study with 33,000 respondents

This general mindset of distrust filters into the workforce of every organization—even into those with high trust factors. That’s why understanding how to use communication to build trust is such a timely skill to cultivate—and one that almost every leader can improve upon.

Only 37% of the general population says CEOs are credible

Only 37% of the general population says CEOs are credible

64% say they find leaked information more believable than press statements.

64% say they find leaked information more believable than press statements.

55% say a company’s social media page is more believable than advertising.

55% say a company’s social media page is more believable than advertising.


9 communication Strategies That Can Help a CEO Build Trust

1. Address your audience's biggest concerns.

Does your communication strategy include listening? Create ways to ask your employees what kinds of things they want to know more about—what questions they’d like answers to, what changes are causing them concern, what ideas they have for improvement, and what their biggest obstacles to success are. Then craft messages around these topics. When audiences see you’re engaged with them, they’ll be more engaged with you, which builds a trust relationship.

2. Deliver messages via peers—rather than leaders.

While employees need to hear from leaders, the trust study states that peers are now seen as credible as experts. This is a good time to initiate ways to have appropriate messages delivered by employees.

Consider the subject matter experts in your organization who can speak intimately about the day-to-day operations and topics your audience is most familiar with. Bringing the voices of in-house experts into the conversation can signal a unified workforce, so trusting the message doesn’t hinge on perceptions of any one messenger.

3. Communicate empathy, reassurance, and calm in the face of fear and uncertainty.

Emotions are contagious, and this is why leaders especially need to project calm, warmth, and hope in their communications. Employees pick up on fear in their leaders, and it can spread quickly through an organization.

Today's employee is dizzied by the speed of change, complexity of life and pervasiveness of communication—and as a result is often anxious. But rather than reacting to anxiousness, address the root causes in your communication. For example, a person’s worries about technology, immigration, centralization and globalization could all be tied back to a fundamental fear of job loss. Knowing the sources of these fears can help you craft messages that address the underlying issues.

Not all messages are innately reassuring, of course. But striking a calm, hopeful tone can help defuse unpleasant messages.


Percent of respondents with each fear who also believe that the system is failing them —2017 Edelman Trust Barometer

4. Use truth to build trust.

It’s easy to avoid discussing harsh realities because of their unpleasantness, yet the short-term benefit of avoidance is outweighed by the long-term effect. Misinformation, incomplete information or withholding information eventually erodes trust—the most powerful human and organizational currency. As a leader, you influence truth-telling by modeling this behavior and rewarding it in your organization.

When delivering tough messages, couple them with a plan of action and the why behind the decision. Paint a picture of what’s possible if the plan is implemented, to give people a focal point.

Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.
— Isaac Newton

5. Monitor the optics: Do behaviors match words?

Is there a gap between what your organization says and what it does? Consider designating a coach outside of the C-suite or the company who can see things with a fresh perspective, and have them review significant actions against your mission, vision, and values to ensure parity.

Zappos understands the significance of building a culture that is cohesive with a company’s words and values. As their CEO, Tony Hsieh, says: “Our belief is that a company’s culture and a company’s brand are just two sides of the same coin. The brand is just a lagging indicator of the culture.”


The "Stairway to Culture" in the  Zappos  Headquarters

The "Stairway to Culture" in the Zappos Headquarters

6. Deploy and train your middle managers as communicators.

Middle managers are the culture torchbearers, the influencers, and the tone-setters because they have more contact with both employees and leaders. It’s no wonder that communication from direct managers is the most effective channel for reaching employees, according to a CEB survey of more than 1,000 employees.

Provide your managers with communication training and tools and unleash them to do the important work of leadership armed with better skills and information. One CMBell client did this well when they focused a year-long communication initiative on leaders and conducted a survey at the end to determine its effectiveness. They found that their most important ideas had taken hold with their leadership team—with 9 out of 10 of them saying they better understood the why behind their work, knew more about their key strategies, and had a better understanding of the value of working together. From there, the managers could confidently reach the front-line staff with key messages they were already well-versed in.

7. Speak from your heart.

The Edelman study says that spontaneity and outspokenness make speakers more believable. Using your own voice and speaking about things that you care about conveys authenticity and builds trust.

Appropriate self-revelation creates connections, too. When delivering bad news, expressing your own sadness about it conveys empathy, which builds trust.

In this video example, the CEO broke from her standard business updates and delivered a message of inspiration that was based on her own personal experience and passion, generating enthusiastic responses from her internal audience. These kinds of messages can be important tools for building culture.

8. Use video when you can’t be there in person.

Video is perceived as more authentic than other media, according to a Viostream study. Viewers perceive fewer filters in video than in text, where words can be interpreted and misconstrued. Video also delivers additional and important communication through body language and tone of voice that can’t be conveyed as accurately in text alone.

Video can also be a very useful tool for delivering messages where precise language is essential. We recently worked with a client involved in a merger in a heavily regulated field where words had to be chosen carefully. A video message from the CEO allowed the message to be delivered directly to the audience using the precise language required by law.

And finally, video has the added advantage of being more personal and is the next best thing to being there—which is often impossible in large companies with a geographically distributed workforce. In video, leaders can convey both information and emotion, which can build trust.

9. Avoid corporate-speak.

Are you globally extending goal-oriented potentialities? Scaling intuitive partnerships? Building collaborative and idea-sharing modalities?

Even for employees who may understand it, jargon can make your message boring, less believable and can make you less accessible as a leader. Instead use short, simple words that can be widely understood.


How and where your message is displayed is just as important as the message.

Click below to see our infographic showing the best digital channels for employee communication.

Why Good Ideas Aren't Enough: A Message To Leaders

Most leaders can see a vision for their company that will help it thrive. But the next step is the hard one—how to get these critical ideas adopted—and executed?
Here are some tips:

  1. Create a strategic communication plan that lists the key messages, how often and when they’ll be delivered, and who will be responsible for each.  It doesn’t have to be complicated—just clear and executable.
  2. Deliver the vision of the destination before you go into the how. Paint a picture of how life will look after the idea has taken hold.
  3. Use language employees understand. Corporate-speak adds weight that drags down a message, so if you struggle with this, have an outsider review it and point out places where this is occurring.
  4. Make it personal. How will it impact them? What exactly should they do differently now?  What is their role in success?
  5. Use the media they relate to. Is it a video on a mobile-friendly site? An e-letter? A forum? (And yes, you’ll need to use multiple ones.)
  6. Engage the senses. Today’s employee is saturated by visually rich messages—so an overworked text-heavy power point isn’t going to have the impact you need. Great visuals are now essential. And to kick it up a notch, use video to bring motion, music and sound and dramatically increase the impact of your message.
  7. Understand their world. Employees get too much information—but not enough inspiration. Connecting your ideas to their sense of purpose is the best way to inspire them.
  8. Keep it short. Employees like their information in short, snackable formats that they can ingest quickly.
  9. Repeat it. Yes, over and over and over. By the time you’re weary of saying it, it will just be gaining traction.
  10. Listen. Communication is a two-way street. Employees should have some way of submitting questions and ideas that get answered. 

These tried-and-true strategies will absolutely help your ideas spread. What other tools are helping you get your ideas heard?

Use Success Stories to Build Your Company's Culture

Employee engagement and culture development are two of the hot topics in business today. We know that employees have discretionary effort—and those who feel deeply connected to their work will expend more effort.
One technique that can help do both is to celebrate successes—and connect them to your core purpose. Need some inspiration? Check out this video that we produced with San Joaquin Community Hospital to summarize their achievements for the year.
Are you talking about successes enough at your company? How might video help you celebrate your achievements better?

Educational Advertising Awards Given to Four CMBell Company Projects

Four creative projects were selected for awards in the 30th Annual Educational Advertising Awards Competition. The Independent Colleges of Washington 60-year Anniversary Video received a Gold Award, and communication projects for the Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges & Universities and Walla Walla University received a Silver Award and two Merit Awards. Earlier, these same projects received recognition in the 12th Annual Service Industry Awards Competition.
Congratulations to ICW, OAICU and WWU!

Why Leaders and Communicators Should Lead the Talk about the Good Things

There’s an oppressive cloud that hangs over humans—often without their permission. And that’s how we’re hard-wired, says Bryan Sexton, Ph.D., reflecting on research at the Patient Safety Center of Duke University Health System.
It’s because we have to remember the bad things in order to not repeat them. The hissing of a snake reminds us that danger is near and we ought not have to relearn that lesson in life. So the bad stuff tends to stick more than the good stuff.
Unless, he says, we can make a more concerted effort to remember the good stuff. And that’s where their research gets practical.
By writing down three good things that happened to us—and our role in them—at the end of each day, we cultivate the habit of looking for the good. This helps develop resiliency and address exhaustion, stress, burn-out and even depression. Their results are rather striking.
You can see the 11-minute summary of the research here—if you’re curious.

And now let us link this to the world of communication and leadership.
Employee engagement and performance is surely linked to burn-out and stress. It’s the nature of most of our work to be resolving problems. The communicator can play a vital role in restoring the balance and organizational energy by reminding us of the good things, like:

  • The impact of our work on other humans
  • Successes
  • The reasons behind our work
  • The benefits of navigating difficult passages

Leaders and communicators play a vital role in restoring balance and focus to the workforce by what they talk about.
Perhaps we can start with logging our own three good things each day.

Persuade Shareholders

An annual report is one of a company’s most vital communication tools. The colors, design and images in your annual report should all support your key messages—and should inspire confidence among shareholders and readers alike.

Not sure if your annual report is living up to its full potential?

  • See how it compares visually to your top competitors’ annual reports.

  • Grade your photos. If that’s all the readers see, what would they think about your company?

  • Browse it. If you read only pictures, captions, subheads and headlines, what will you know about your organization?

Need some inspiration? >>  

Dress up your presentation in style to convey confidence and success, like this package we helped develop for a CEO’s presentation at their annual shareholder’s meeting. Energetic colors, bold design and a mix of media—to keep the presentation alive—tell the company’s story and build support.

Presentation Video

2013 Annual Report


Investor Capacity Folder

Investor PowerPoint Presentation

7 Tips on Engaging Employees in Your Strategy

Without employee support, no strategy—no matter how brilliant—gets executed. Aligning employee behavior is one of the most important tasks of leadership. Here are seven tips that can help you achieve this:

  • No CEO can speak personally to every employee. So be sure to deliver the message in a format that can be shared and spread organically. Generally, video is the medium of choice because it engages all of the senses.
  • Give employees a reason to believe. Help employees move from fear of change to acceptance and implementation, by showing how it will impact customers.
  • Make it relevant to their world, their concerns. Skip all the technical details and show how it will benefit them.
  • Make it speak to the heart, as well as the head. People don’t change behavior because they get a list of reasons to do so. They change because something has stirred within them a desire to change. To be successful, your strategy needs both the detailed action items and the visionary, inspirational component.
  • Make the destination as real and compelling as you can. You are, after all, asking them to make a journey to an unknown destination. There are no travel brochures except the ones you create—so invest in making them well.
  • Use the best tools available. This is no job for the predictable PowerPoint presentation. To move people, the communication tool should engage all of the senses with sound, visuals and words. It should reflect the same level of quality that your workplace does.
  • Coherence. And finally, words matter. But actions talk, too. Make sure that there’s coherence between what you say and how you live your talk throughout your organization.

Need some inspiration? Here’s a video we just produced for a large, nonprofit health care system to launch their new strategic plan.

Adventist Health Strategy Video

Adventist Health Banners

Recognize Employees

Recognition is one of the top things employees want in a job—yet too often it’s far too scarce. Yet watch any sport on TV and see how the immediate response of the crowd affects the players.

Recognition not only helps job satisfaction, but it acts as a rudder—steering the organization in its desired direction. Employees focus on what is rewarded and celebrated.

So how can you communicate recognition better in the workplace?

  • Make personal communication specific, like this: “Your ability to bring disparate ideas together really made that meeting a success.”
  • Make it more frequent.
  • Recognize people in front of their peers.
  • Send a note to the person’s boss, and copy them in.
  • Use a picture of them in a corporate communication.

 Need some inspiration? >>

This video celebrates the work of a hospital’s volunteers with photos of them at work. It’s an easy and fast way to say thank you to the people who make your organization successful—and it also can be used in recruiting, to give prospects a sense of your organization.

By showcasing employees talking about what it means to work at their organization, this video recognizes their employees, physicians and volunteers.

Essential Skills for Tomorrow’s Top Health Care Marketers

The role of the health care marketer and communicator is changing—that’s not news. But what will it look like? In the Sept./Oct.  issue of Spectrum, the member newsletter of  Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (SHSMD), we suggest the critical skills tomorrow’s pros will need to master. Which of these do you think will be most important?

5 Secrets the Best Conversationalists Know


Being a leader or a professional communicator includes polishing one’s own tools for interpersonal communication. Here are five substantive but simple strategies for becoming a better conversationalist—offered by Michael Hyatt.

  1. Strategy #1: Listen with your heart.
  2. Strategy #2: Be aware of how much you’re talking.
  3. Strategy #3: Hit the ball back over the net.
  4. Strategy #4: Ask follow-up questions.
  5. Strategy #5: Provide positive feedback.

Hyatt reminds us that genuine curiosity and interest in others is key to your ability to lead. You can listen to his podcast here.

Reinforce Mission and Purpose

Is your mission widely embraced? Does it inspire your employees? Compel customers?
A mission statement represents an organization’s mission—and a strong mission attracts both customers and employees. But a mission statement alone is only inspirational when it is arrestingly delivered and it aligns with corporate talk and behaviors. Mission, first and foremost, has to be something leadership is clear on, committed to. From there, consider these strategies to galvanize your mission:

Take out the guesswork. A clear mission statement creates corporate focus, which helps employees decide what’s important. But if your mission is weak, wobbly, or in a constant state of flux, your organization will lack momentum and lean towards chaos.

Create a mission statement that’s clear and inspirational. Deploy fresh, arresting language. 

Make sure it’s evident to all what it looks like when you achieve your mission.

Deliver your mission statement in fresh ways—and in lots of places: 

  • Post it on the walls and have employees sign it.
  • Print it on your collateral. 
  • Make a desktop/tabletop version. 
  • Bring it to life in video or motion graphic for your website. 
  • Create a mission screensaver. 

Be patient. Deliver your mission message consistently over and over; by the time you’re tired of it, it will just be taking root. 

Need some inspiration? >>

In this short Web video, we helped a hospital speak to their grander purposes and mission as they celebrated their centennial.

When employees talk, people listen. In this video, employees reinforce the sense of purpose and mission that this hospital prizes.

Pictures, music and motion—with a little added explanation for depth—combine to make this mission statement come to life.

How to Inspire Employees

Employees need reminders of the purpose of their work to stay engaged and motivated. It’s easy to lose the fire that launched one’s career in the press of our daily demands. This is one of the tasks of leadership—to kindle this fire with regular and authentic messages that help us return to our purposes.

In this video we developed as part of their Centennial messaging, Los Angeles’ White Memorial Medical Center celebrates the deeper purposes that drive their remarkable team to bring passion to their daily work. It reminds the hospital family—doctors, employees, volunteers and community stakeholders—why they do what they do, and why their work matters.

Leaders who want to inspire their employees to bring their best energies and ideas to work can draw from many tools—from their own conversations to a video like this, which speaks to both the visual and auditory senses. Its calm cadence and rich pictures provide a momentary oasis in the day where they can be drawn back to their core purposes. 

Almost all of the photos in this piece were custom shot, which made it a great value for the client. They finished the project with both a video, which was shown at their Centennial Gala and posted on their website and social media sites, and a library of authentic images representing their daily work.

How are you using communication to inspire your employees to do their best?

Choose Your Words With Care


We love words, but we also fear them. They have so much power, and so often are used carelessly.

In their best light, words can set off a new direction in a person’s life—can shape a company or lead a cause. At its worst, they can destroy. That’s why we are sharing this insightful Harvard Business Review article by Douglas Conant—Leaders, Choose Your Words Wisely.

In this powerful piece, Conant references seven memorable touchpoints that were life-altering for him—32 words total, 20 seconds of conversation total.

One might argue that those of us whose business it is to use words with care should hold ourselves to an even higher standard. But whether you’re a leader, a professional communicator, a friend or a parent, you have the chance to shape the life of another for the better with your words.

What life-changing words from leaders have you been shaped by?

Is there a Cost to Rudeness at Work?

Rudeness in the workplace is up dramatically in the last 14 years, according to this Harvard Business Review podcast (click below to listen) by Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. And there’s reason to believe there’s a cost associated with it.

As professional communicators, we can help set a tone of civility in our corporate communications and by our own behavior. After all, good manners, at their best, aren’t about being stuffy or pretentious, but about being respectful of our fellow human beings. Living together in a home, community or nation means that our ideas and behaviors will inevitably impact those around us. Civility and common courtesy can act as a lubricant for social behavior—making life more pleasant for everyone.

I say it’s time we buck this trend, and decide that civility isn’t just good for corporations, it’s good for neighborhoods, communities and cities.

The High Cost of Rudeness at Work

The Secret to Selling: What Great Leaders Know

Why do some companies outperform others? Why do some people achieve things others do not? Why do some leaders inspire, while others don’t?

In this Ted Talk, Simon Sinek asserts that all great leaders think, act and communicate differently than others. They stay focused on the question of “Why?”—which engages humans at a deeper level than facts alone.

Sinek says that people will buy what you sell if they believe what you believe. As he said, Martin Luther King gave a “I have a dream” speech, rather than “I have a plan” speech. In marketing, this means talking more about why we do what we do than about what we do.  

What’s the why behind your business? And how might that inspire others to buy what you have to sell?

Six Leadership Tips for 2012

Screen Shot 2012-01-10 at 10.44.24 AM.png

As we’re contemplating our 15th anniversary, we’ve had time to reflect on not only our company’s future, but the role of business in our communities and countries. Leadership, we all know, is so critical.

In a recent Forbes article, Mike Myatt listed six sound leadership tips for 2012:

  1. Make your family first.

  2. Create times for thinking and being—not just doing. As he wisely says, “Leadership doesn’t always mean doing.”

  3. Listen better. Value the ideas of others, and don’t always be in a rush to impart your own.

  4. Unlearning. It’s always good to evaluate some of the ideas we hold that need to be let go.

  5. Engage with those you lead and serve.

  6. Read. Myatt says that to a person, the best leaders he knows are prolific readers. His goal? To read 100 books in 2012.

You can read the full article here. And when you’re done, share your list with us.

Communications Can Restore Sense of Purpose and Meaning to the Workforce

How can we recognize our volunteers? That was the question posed by St. Anthony North Hospital as they prepared to launch their 40-year anniversary campaign.

We assembled this simple animation pairing words and photos to respond to their request, and love the magical qualities represented by these compelling still images. Hiring one of our partner photographers in Colorado, we commissioned her to tell a visual story that captures the generous spirit of these volunteers. Within a week, we had pulled this together, designing it in a way that allows it to be used not only for the anniversary, but for recruiting and recognizing volunteers in the future.

Communicators build culture by the words and images they use—by the stories they tell. This is one of the areas I find most rewarding in our work. It's easy to focus on new products, services and programs, because of their news value. But we all need to remember how important it is to take time to reinforce behaviors that are essential to your corporate culture.

Here are ways to use an animation like this:

  • Post it on your website
  • Post it on your YouTube site
  • Show it in orientation, or during the recruiting process
  • Show it at events
  • Post it on Facebook and other social media sites
  • Show it on in-house monitors or TV channels
  • Distribute links to it via email

We often find that reminding people of the deeper reasons they chose their profession pays off in significant ways for companies—restoring a bit of soul to the corporate world.

What kind of culture-building communications have you seen lately that worked?

Reputation or character?

Legendary UCLA Coach Wooden understood how to inspire success in others. His focus on character was foundational to his leadership. As he put it, character is what you are, and reputation is what you are perceived to be. This is true not only of people, but of companies. Although our work as communicators is about building reputation, it is always in adjunct to the organization’s work to be a company of character.

Wooden also believed that how we make the journey is more important than our final destination, and redefines winning by how we conduct ourselves along the way. “You can outscore another team and lose, and you can be outscored by another team and win,” he says in this inspirational interview.