Davos 2012: The great transformation

With record snowfall, spirited Occupiers, and thought leaders from across industries and around the globe congregating in Davos, Switzerland, this year's World Economic Forum was laser-focused on current worldwide crises at hand.

With record snowfall, spirited Occupiers, and thought leaders from across industries and around the globe congregating in Davos, Switzerland, this year's World Economic Forum was laser-focused on current worldwide crises at hand. Aptly themed, “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models,” the conversation was heavily influenced by the debt crisis in Europe. The larger questions about inequality, how capitalism is working, and how to redefine fairness in the 21st century were discussed at length.

At Davos, I spoke at a panel on the politics of 2012, which is set to be a landmark political year with elections and expected power changes in several leading democracies and global powers, including the US, France, China, and Russia. So far all predictions of the American election have been wide of the mark – Rick Santorum in Iowa? Newt Gingrich in South Carolina? Nevertheless, I predicted that Mitt Romney would win the nomination, Obama the general, Democrats the House and Republicans the Senate – reserving the right to update these predictions every 30 days.

Europe, which has been suffering from both economic and political crises, has generally been lurching to the right, fearing what more left-leaning governments might do in times of deficit. But perhaps that may change this year – Lord Mandelson predicted France might have a new Socialist president.

I was also given the opportunity to offer the American perspective on the debt crisis in Europe during the Clifford Chance panel, “Beyond the Crisis: What Next for Europe?” By and large, when Americans think about the debt crisis in Europe, they reflexively say, "Not my problem." With millions of housing foreclosures still looming, high unemployment, and trillion-dollar deficits, Americans see themselves saddled with too many of their own problems to lend a hand to Europe. And the Europeans are unsure themselves about the solution. I watched an argument unfold in front of me with one European economist calling for an end to the Euro, the other saying we should have a two-tier Euro, with a third saying they had to keep things as they are or face ruin.

Moreover, with the presence of the Occupiers at home and abroad in Davos, along with the aftermath of the Arab Spring fresh on everyone's mind, I had the chance to explore with fellow Davos-goers the evolving relationship between politicians and media. Fifty years ago, there were three networks and two news services in the US. Most people in the country got their national news from them. Today there are thousands of media outlets vying for viewership and the relationship between media and politics has evolved – first politics was news, then it was sport, and now it has become entertainment as cable channels and networks compete for viewers. Arianna Huffington discussed the power of new media while Ed Miliband reflected on the problems of having to be on camera every minute of the day.

On a different note, I also had the pleasure of releasing the inaugural Global Corporate Reputation Index, which was released by Burson-Marsteller, Landor Associates, Penn Schoen Berland, and Brand Asset Consulting. Based on 40,000 consumer interviews in six countries regarding the qualities they associate with nearly 6,000 companies, the Index focused on two sets of attributes – performance and citizenship – that drive corporate reputation. Using a proprietary model, the Index identified 25 consumer companies with the best reputation.

The findings suggest that companies have an opportunity to strengthen their reputation by demonstrating and communicating more actively their commitment to good corporate citizenship. The apparel industry still has a lot of work to do. And while the tech industry is flying high, more and more questions about its citizenship and behavior are coming to the foreground.

Davos 2012 was truly a conversation about “the great transformation.” From a rapidly evolving debt crisis in Europe to the manner in which people receive and perceive information to political transitions around the world, we are in the midst of a great sea change. Sometimes Davos can seem out of touch with what's going on, but that certainly was not the case this year. In fact, it was the most relevant and immediately useful Davos I have had the honor to attend.

Mark Penn is the worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller and CEO of Penn Schoen Berland. He also served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000 and as chief strategist to Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign for president.

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