• As consumers increasingly expect CEOs to take a stand on climate change, we decided to employ our AI-based CEO Media Visibility Tracker to see which business leaders were most prominent in the media conversation around sustainability.
  • We found that CEOs from the energy, automotive and financial services sectors have had the largest share of voice in the sustainability debate in the last 12 months, while sectors like food and drink, FMCG and fashion have generally failed to activate their CEOs as reputation vehicles.
  • We suggest that CEO comms should become a PR priority in any green initiative, especially since CEOs became thought leaders on societal issues and emerged as some of the most often quoted spokespeople during the crisis.

With trust in governments declining, people clearly expect business to step in and fill the void, and the high expectations of business to address and solve today’s challenges has never been more apparent. The heightened expectations of business bring CEOs new demands to focus on societal engagement with the same rigour, thoughtfulness, and energy used to deliver on profits.

As a result, CEOs have been under increasing pressure to spearhead a re-evaluation of the point and purpose of business. Business leaders increasingly are embracing the idea that a company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices will play a role in its future success. For example, a quarter of CEOs now strongly agree that investing in climate-change initiatives could lead to significant new product and service opportunities for their businesses, up from 13% in 2010, according to a 2020 survey of more than 1,500 global CEOs by PwC.

And a survey of more than 1,000 CEOs conducted by the U.N. Global Compact and Accenture found that 79% said the pandemic has highlighted the need to transition to more sustainable business models. According to the report, CEOs believe there is a real opportunity for the global business community to embrace UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, to drive growth, efficiency, reputation and innovation.

Moreover, execs reported that their businesses are already experiencing the damaging effects of climate change and they are ready to take bold action. Those impacts are a wake-up call that’s accelerating their transition to more sustainable business models. CEOs say the window of opportunity to turn things around is closing, but key actions can help.

In June, more than 70 CEOs from some of the world’s biggest companies have urged governments to do much more to tackle climate change, including forcing businesses to reduce their carbon emissions. In an open letter, company chiefs— including Mark Schneider of Nestlé and Ramon Laguarta of PepsiCo — called on all governments to set policies to meet targets consistent with the Paris climate agreement’s most ambitious goal of capping the global rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Energy and auto CEOs in the foreground

But which CEOs are most influential when it comes to sustainability and why? In order to find out, we decided to employ our AI-based CEO Media Visibility Tracker, which won the Best in Marketing Technology In2 SABRE Award 2021.

Our tracker utilises advanced AI to measure the media and social media visibility of 150 CEOs of Fortune Global Companies and to identify the business events driving their image in the media.

The tracker uses two types of metrics: “centrality” and “number of articles mentioning a specific business event”. Centrality measures CEO’s visibility in top-tier online media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, Reuters, Bloomberg, Forbes, as well as on Twitter. It is a metric similar to Google’s Page Rank, applying a mathematical method to measure the quantity and quality of connections between a CEO and the media outlets and Twitter users that reference them.

The analysis is supplemented by the identification of the most prominent business drivers attributable to the CEOs’ media presence, performed by Commetric’s AI-based reputation analytics platform ComVix, which won the Best in Marketing Technology In2 SABRE Award EMEA 2020. The ranking is updated monthly and is based on media coverage from the previous month.

We found that in the past 12 months, CEOs from the energy (particularly oil and gas) and the automobile industries had the largest share of voice in the sustainability debate:

Oil and gas CEOs were widely cited as they started to make promises to respond to climate change. In recent years, factors such as stronger government action, increasing demand from investors, growing consumer awareness and the emergence of electric vehicles have made sustainability a central strategic priority for major oil companies, leading to a re-evaluation of business models, portfolios and operational practices. The prevailing opinion circulating in the media is that the “oil age” will come to an inevitable end and that the future low carbon economy will compel the oil giants of today to transform into the energy giants of tomorrow.

In October, Darren Woods of Exxon Mobil, Michael Wirth of Chevron, Bernard Looney of BP and Ben van Beurden of Shell made headlines as they appeared before the Senate, answering some tough questions such as: Would they pledge to stop lobbying against efforts to reduce emissions? And were they willing to tell their powerful trade groups to stop working against electric vehicles?

The leaders of the four major oil and gas companies touted their support for a transition to clean energy and said they had never engaged in campaigns to mislead the public on the role of fossil fuel emissions in global warming. All four acknowledged that the burning of their products was driving climate change, but also told lawmakers that fossil fuels are not about to disappear.

Similarly, CEOs from the automotive industry had pledged to accelerate the development of cleaner vehicles to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the CEOs of General Motors, Ford Motor, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Nissan-Renault Alliance, Volvo Group, Beijing Automotive Group and India’s Mahindra & Mahindra, along with the leaders of some of the world’s largest automotive suppliers, signed a two-page commitment to help “decarbonise” automotive transportation.

As Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida told CNBC, ESG has a significant impact on how carmakers do their business. Of course, for the past couple of decades the industry has come under considerable pressure from government and society to be more sustainable, but dealing with a more conscious consumer has prompted “more emphasis on areas like electrification, autonomy and connectivity”.

Following energy and auto, CEOs from the financial services industry were also particularly vocal, especially on the topic of ESG investing. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink said in his 2021 letter to CEOs that the “tectonic shift” toward sustainability-focused companies is accelerating in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

For tech CEOs, combating climate change is not only a foundational value but also a way for tech companies to attract and keep top talent, as this is the issue the young generation cares the most about. Leaders such as Apple CEO Tim Cook gained media attention for saying that companies can be environmentally conscious while still making a profit.

In the meantime, CEOs from some of the industries which face the harshest criticisms – food and drink, FMCG and fashion – weren’t that visible in the sustainability conversation.

These sectors suffer from seriously damaged reputations – food and drink giants have been blamed for causing more than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, FMCG players for being a major factor in plastic pollution, and fashion houses for encouraging overconsumption and the sale of clothes so cheap they are being treated disposably, contributing to water and air pollution. These industries, which have historically relied on brand-specific campaigns, have generally failed to activate their CEOs as reputation vehicles.

Elon on top, followed by Big Auto and Big Oil bosses

Using the CEO Media Visibility Tracker, we found that an automotive leader – Elon Musk of Tesla – was the most influential CEO in the sustainability discussion, which is hardly surprising given his superstar status.

Among Elon’s most headline-grabbing moves in the past 12 months was his announcement that Tesla had halted purchases of its vehicles with bitcoin due to concerns over the “rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for bitcoin mining.” He alluded to data from researchers at Cambridge University which shows bitcoin’s electricity usage spiking this year. Tesla won’t sell its bitcoin — the automaker is sitting on $2.5 billion worth of the digital coin — and Musk said it intends to resume transactions with bitcoin once mining “transitions to more sustainable energy.”

Another top-trending story was Musk’s contest for workable solutions for reducing the planet’s CO2 emissions at scale in a “durable and sustainable way.” The contest started on Earth Day and will last four years, ending on Earth Day 2025, or April 22, 2025.

The second most influential auto CEO was Volkswagen’s Herbert Diess, who was cited as saying that his company considers itself well equipped for a zero-emission and autonomous future of mobility. He added that backed by its ability to scale platforms globally, the Volkswagen Group intends to further expand its share of the e-mobility market.

In a similar fashion, Mary Barra made headlines in January by announcing that GM would sell only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035 and setting a net-zero target for its manufacturing plants of 2040, which she said was imperative for the company.

The second most influential CEO in the sustainability debate as a whole came from Big Oil. Darren Woods rarely makes headlines even though he is the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, the oil company that some people consider a top environmental villain and others think of as a vital engine of the U.S. economy.

But Woods gained prominence as he started to make promises to respond to climate change, which is at the very least a rhetorical break from his predecessors if not a substantive one. “What society demands, and appropriately so, is affordable, reliable energy that doesn’t have the emissions associated with today’s energy systems,” he said recently. “We’re working on that evolution.”

Likewise, the boss of oil giant Shell has insisted it can transition to net-zero by 2050, but it will need the cash from its oil and gas business to pay for it. Ben van Beurden dismissed splitting its legacy oil and gas business from its renewables investment, a move urged by activist shareholder Third Point. Talking exclusively to the BBC, he said the company’s plans for greener energy could only be funded by oil and gas. “At this point in time [the cash] comes from our legacy business,” he said.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Bernard Looney, who earned his influence in the discussion by saying that oil giant BP also is committed to tackling climate change, but hydrocarbons such as oil and gas will have an ongoing role to play in the energy mix for years. “It may not be popular to say that oil and gas is going to be in the energy system for decades to come but that is the reality,” Looney told CNBC.

Banking and tech execs try to make sustainability cool

The third most influential CEO, BlackRock’s Larry Fink was mentioned primarily because of his 2021 letter to CEOs which claimed that the “tectonic shift” toward sustainability-focused companies is accelerating in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Fink, more and more people do understand that climate risk is investment risk.

Another influential bank boss was Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan, who has been driving the creation of the ESG metrics, a special set of metrics related to environmental, social and governance issues that help companies measure how they’re doing well for society. This effort was led by the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council, of which Moynihan is the chair.

And on her first day as chief executive officer, Jane Fraser vowed Citigroup would achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions in its financing activities by 2050. The bank will produce an initial plan for reaching the goal within the next year, Fraser said in a blog post. It will include specific targets for carbon-intensive sectors such as energy to reduce their emissions by 2030, she said.

Within the tech sector, Sundar Pichai emerged as the most influential, as he promoted several sustainability features, such as Google’s dedicated “sustainability” landing page, where the tech giant outlines its goals to combat climate change — like being carbon-free by 2030 — and shows status reports on its environmental efforts, such as making a “hyperlocal” air quality map.

Tim Cook wasn’t far behind, as Apple got in the news for committing to becoming completely carbon neutral across its business, products and manufacturing supply chain by 2030. Apple has made huge strides in this direction: its global corporate operations are already carbon neutral, and while it is sometimes criticized for “greenwashing,” most environmental groups think Apple is taking a positive approach.

Perhaps the most demonised CEO of late, Mark Zuckerberg, also featured in the sustainability discussion ass he admitted in a 2021 April congressional hearing that climate misinformation is “a big issue”. In the past, his company has said such misinformation accounts for “a very low percentage of total misinformation on the service” but declined to share figures.

As mentioned, food and drink, FMCG and fashion have generally failed to activate their CEOs as reputation vehicles. Still, from the food and drink sector, PepsiCo’s Ramon Laguarta emerged as the most visible, as he was cited as saying that the severe impacts from climate change are worsening, and we must accelerate the urgent systemic changes needed to address it.

From FMCG, Unilever’s CEO Alan Jope was quoted as claiming that five years after the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, we need to shift the dialogue away from setting targets to the plan to reach the targets, because “the actions we take in the next 10 years will affect the next 200 years”. And from fashion, LVMH’s Bernard Arnault said that targets such as the principles of the U.N. Fashion Charter (achieving 25% low-impact materials sourcing by 2025, achieving 50% renewable energy by 2025, and 100% by 2030) didn’t make sense for LVMH’s business, adding “we prefer action to pacts.”

How can CEO comms build a more sustainable reputation?

Based on our analysis, here are a few tips that can be implemented in sustainability-centred comms strategies:

  • Make CEO comms a PR priority. How CEOs behave will become increasingly linked to the brand value of the companies they command and therefore more important in the way brand drives business success. There is far more to being a good CEO than just fame. Just as it is not enough for brands to be well known, CEOs themselves need to be reputable and liked. This year’s Brand Guardianship Index demonstrates that the most famous CEOs are not the most reputable, and the most reputable CEOs are not that famous. Good CEOs are those who nurture relations with all stakeholders, and enhance the reputation of their brands as a result. They must balance the needs of commercial success, long-term brand building and personal reputation management.
  • Utilise the greater visibility of CEOs during the pandemic. Alongside doctors and academics, CEOs have been some of the most often quoted spokespeople during the crisis. Our own research found that during the first months of the pandemic, CEOs from the financial services industry were the most often quoted ones, followed by those from the industrial, health and retail sectors. But this attention to executives is not a new phenomenon. It has to do with a growing trend in journalism – the ever-closer focus on the CEO as a personality. An inordinate amount of journalistic effort is dedicated to telling the stories of larger-than-life hyperproductive figures who take bold decisions and are masters of ineffable management concepts such as “leadership”.
  • Focus CEO messaging on regeneration rather than just doing less harm to the planet. As we pointed out in our recent analysis, “conventional sustainability”, as some scholars call it, recognises that the unfettered use of environmental resources is detrimental for continued human existence. In this conceptualisation, the focus is anthropocentric and largely on how to enable continued economic development within a context of finite resources. But by now it’s clear—doing less harm is not going to be enough. CEOs should tap into the emerging concept of “regeneration“, which goes beyond mitigating harm and means actively restoring and nurturing, creating conditions where ecosystems and economies can flourish. In other words, regeneration includes and transcends conventional sustainability, adopting a more holistic worldview, seeing humans and the rest of life as one autopoietic system.
  • Start treating ESG as an issue beyond finance and investor relations. ESG was discussed mainly in its financial aspect by CEOs from the financial services industry. However, the ESG concept can be used as an opportunity to build your brand and corporate reputation by showing how your company actually delivers “purpose”. Our recent research actually shows that comms professionals should move beyond purpose and focus their efforts on ESG – a much more specific and tangible concept with better defined KPIs which is yet to gain full momentum, especially on social media. Be among the first to utilise the power of social media and engage a wider circle of stakeholders in a more informal fashion, particularly on Instagram, a platform that has much higher engagement rates with many key stakeholders and where ESG topics are very popular among millennials.
  • Reconsider corporate reporting. Currently, CEOs are under significant pressure from regulators, investors, and other stakeholders to increase disclosure around stakeholder impact and ESG issues. While the nature of corporate reporting has not fundamentally changed for decades, the world has changed considerably during that time. Today, businesses are under pressure from their stakeholders to be more transparent about what they do and how they do it. Yet, stakeholders do not necessarily trust that corporate reporting provides them with all the information they require, according to EY. This is forcing a shift in focus from short-term profit to a positive long-term impact on people, the planet, and prosperity – measured by a wider set of standardised non-financial metrics, not just bottom-line figures.

Check out the CEO Media Visibility Tracker to find out what is driving CEO brand image and corporate reputation.