How the public perception of CEOs has shifted during the pandemic

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.

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.


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