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How the public perception of CEOs has shifted during the pandemic

Jeff Bezos is down. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon is up.

How the public perception of CEOs has shifted during the pandemic
[Photos: Andrew Burton/Getty Images (Cornell), Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images (Nadella), Drew Angerer/Getty Images (Donahoe)]

As the coronavirus has radically reshaped the economy, some companies have adapted better than others—and some CEOs have performed better as leaders. A new ranking from SJR, a corporate communications firm, compares the public perception of CEOs based on an analysis of millions of social media posts and articles, and it compares how leaders were seen both immediately before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and in the six weeks afterward.

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These are the top 10 CEOs in the ranking:

  1. John Donahoe, Nike
  2. Michael Dell, Dell Technologies
  3. Brian Cornell, Target
  4. Hans Vestberg, Verizon
  5. Satya Nadella, Microsoft
  6. Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin
  7. Bob Swan, Intel
  8. Kevin Hourican, Sysco
  9. Jim Umpleby, Caterpillar
  10. Ernie Herrman, TJX

Each CEO was scored from zero to 100, and in several cases, scores shifted dramatically from January and February to March and early April. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg moved up 36 spots after the global pandemic was declared, from 40th on the list to number 4. Nike’s new CEO, John Donahoe, moved from 18th to 1st on the list. Jeff Bezos, who has been criticized because several warehouse workers have contracted the virus and some have died, moved from 59th on the list to 87th. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, despite facing some similar criticism and worker strikes, was perceived as caring more about workers and moved from 57th on the list to 17th. The company was early to implement a COVID-19 paid leave policy in March and has also paid bonuses to hourly workers.

“In the marketing world, we moved from this thinking of being all about consumers to this journey about stakeholders,” says SJR CEO Alexander Jutkowitz. “Now, I actually think that there’s a third leg of that stool, and that’s the talent or the employees of an organization. If you look at the list, those that acted in a better fashion, and in a more dynamic fashion, and more engaged fashion with their own employees, that mattered.”

The analysis also broke down leaders by industry; here are some of the top 10 lists by sector. On the overall list, notably, no healthcare CEOs reached the top 25.

Top 10 tech CEOs

  1. Michael Dell, Dell
  2. Satya Nadella, Microsoft
  3. Bob Swan, Intel
  4. Ginni Rometty, IBM
  5. Safra Catz, Oracle
  6. Enrique Lores, HP
  7. Sundar Pichai, Alphabet
  8. Richard T. Hume, Tech Data
  9. Tim Cook, Apple
  10. Chuck Robbins, Cisco

Top 10 retail CEOs

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  1. John Donahoe, Nike
  2. Brian Cornell, Target
  3. Ernie Herrman, TJ Maxx
  4. Vivek Sankaran, Albertsons
  5. Todd Jones, Publix Super Markets
  6. Doug McMillon, Walmart
  7. Rodney McMullen, Kroger
  8. Corie Barry, Best Buy
  9. Marvin Ellison, Lowe’s
  10. Craig Menear, Home Depot

Top 10 healthcare CEOs

  1. Brian S. Tyler, McKesson
  2. Michael F. Neidorff, Centene
  3. Wayne T. Smith, Community Health Systems
  4. Gail Koziara Boudreaux, Anthem
  5. Larry J. Merlo, CVS Health
  6. Steven H. Collis, AmerisourceBergen
  7. Alex Gorsky, Johnson & Johnson
  8. Michael C. Kaufmann, Cardinal Health
  9. David Cordani, Cigna
  10. Richard A. Gonzalez, AbbVie

Top 10 finance CEOs

  1. Roger W. Crandall, Massachusetts Mutual Life
  2. Charles F. Lowrey, Prudential Financial
  3. Richard Fairbank, Capital One Financial
  4. Tricia Griffith, Progressive
  5. Stephen Squeri, American Express
  6. Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway
  7. Brian Duperreault, AIG
  8. David H. Long, Liberty Mutual Insurance
  9. Kirt Walker, Nationwide
  10. Hugh R. Frater, Fannie Mae

The leaders with the highest scores have been highly visible during the crisis, Jutkowitz says, and communicated clearly, sometimes appearing in national ads for the brand and engaging often on other brand channels. They’ve also been empathetic. “Servant leadership really has come to the fore,” he says. “It’s leaders who think first of taking care of others, and less about themselves—’themselves’ actually means the brand.” As the pandemic continues, he says that other leaders can learn from those who have done well so far. “Action trumps inaction,” he says. “And talking straight and being clear and candid makes a difference.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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