If reports from Davos are to be believed, the language of public relations has well and truly penetrated the boardroom. Barely a day at the snow-clad summit passed by without some mention of the importance of trust, the requirement for authenticity or - most strikingly - the need for a business model where profit-making is not divorced from purpose.
Nick Giles’ column on this website offers a useful overview of the key PR issues in play. To wit, World Economic Forum CEO Klaus Schwab said that a new type of capitalism is required; Unilever chief Paul Polman discussed the importance of sustainable business; and, Novartis chief executive Daniel Vasella said that social goals are as important as shareholder value.
Two PR agency surveys helped to frame the discussion. Edelman’s Trust Barometer has become particularly effective at chronicling how public faith in institutions has collapsed, now hurting governments as badly, and in some cases even more painfully, as the business world. A new Burson-Marsteller report, meanwhile, artfully revealed some of the critical factors in corporate reputation - pointing to the gap that must be bridged between a company’s performance and its citizenship efforts - and linked them to the financial benefits of good behaviour.
It is tempting to see all of this as an example of the comms world’s increasing influence at the top table, particularly given the increasing numbers of PR people that now decamp to the Swiss town every year. “The agenda, the conversation and the language at Davos bear an uncanny resemblance to some of the advice we give to clients,” agrees Ketchum president Rob Flaherty. “For example, taking a multi-stakeholder approach, driving for sustainability, closely monitoring trust and caring about your brand's reputation are themes you will find in our counsel and in Davos.”
Flaherty, though, believes that any cheerleading should be muted, pointing out that Davos’ has always demonstrated a sensitivity to a multi-stakeholder approach. His view is supported by Tata Consulting Services chief communications and marketing officer Abhinav Kumar, who believes that the Davos focus on “larger global social issues” simply reflects the overall tone of the event.
“You’re not supposed to talk about narrow company interests - your supposed to represent a common point of view,” says Kumar. “The big social point beyond profit is job creation, and how that fits into their job plans.”
There is, of course, considerably irony in the spectacle of the world’s super-elite beating themselves up about income inequality. Yet it indicates the blame that is being heaped on their shoulders, amid continued Eurozone malaise, public disenchantment and the rise of global protest movements.
Many, furthermore, will view the sudden thirst for “responsible capitalism” as an exercise in spin, designed to deflect criticism and perhaps deter regulation. After spending a week at the event, Richard Edelman believes the sentiments on display were “genuine”. They chime with the view he presented at his firm’s Trust Barometer presentation a few days earlier - that business should “step up” and change its behaviour in response to the widespread view that it is under-regulated.
Not everyone is quite as enthusiastic. In the FT, Gideon Rachman asked whether the Davos consensus represented nothing more than “pious baloney”. The business leaders at Davos, he points out, “are not motivated principally by altruism”. Rachman admits that “moral unease” may play a role in this, but adds that a more important factor is rather more pragmatic: the concern that business will lose the globalisation argument because of growing popular opposition.
Public relations people would call this a case of “enlightened self-interest”, and some would argue that this is a more powerful force for good corporate behaviour than any amount of frothy CSR platitudes. Kumar, though, believes that altruism should remain the primary driver. “There’s a lot of things we do which are about doing good for the sake of doing good. There’s nothing wrong with enlightened self-interest, but the intent has to be pure rather than extremely self-serving.”
A cynical view of Davos describes it as the one week of the year when companies profess to care about anything other than profit. Flaherty strongly contests this suggestion, and also notes that the event’s diversity should not be overlooked.
“If anyone thinks Davos is only corporate leaders making deals, they're mistaken,” says Flaherty. “This is a week in which CEOs are engaging with NGOs, academics, faith group leaders, government officials and social entrepreneurs. I think it's an opportunity for business leaders to start the year with a broad perspective.”
That perspective can only help the PR industry’s efforts to position itself as a central component of corporate behaviour, rather than another trivial marketing tactic. The Davos mindset may have its critics, but there is enough evidence to suggest the rising importance of public relations concerns on the corporate agenda.
“It is a forum of decision-makers, and a great place for communicators like me,” adds Kumar. “If you keep mum and listen, there’s a lot you can learn.”