Rob Flaherty: Wikileaks on the agenda at Davos

UK Prime minister David Cameron struck a decidedly upbeat, optimistic, post-recession note in his special address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last Friday. He trumpeted recent innovations from the UK and asserted that Britain's best days are ahead.

Writing from Davos: Rob Flaherty
Writing from Davos: Rob Flaherty

The fairly large contingent from the communications discipline at Davos (agency and corporate) couldn't help but feel similarly optimistic about our future.

As everything goes ‘public’ those of us in public relations have unique, needed skills and a vital role. The business and political world is somewhat painfully adjusting to an extreme level of transparency and social empowerment.  It was central to nearly every discussion.

As everything has the potential to be WikiLeaked, viral, crowdsourced, transparent, real-time, distributed free, bottom-up and multi-stakeholder, experienced communications counsellors should not only be at the centre of the action, we are a discipline on the right side of history.

Our advocacy of open engagement with stakeholders, our unique talent to earn the presence of a message and our skill at building sustainable relationships are what the world needs now.

To hold and optimize this position, we must help our clients and management embrace more transparency and understand the concept of social capital. Social capital is the development of earned, measured relationships.  I believe it is time for relationships to be recognized more formally as business and political assets.  

Contributing to our ability to counsel management was the thinking at an excellent discussion at Davos about ‘The WikiLeaks Dilemma’ moderated by New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. Much of the discussion was about the diplomatic and journalistic implications.

Of more interest to me was the part of the discussion about the potential impact on corporations and brands if and when they become the target of massive document leaks.

Providing a thoughtful answer was David Kennedy, faculty director of the Institute for Global Law and Policy and a professor at Harvard Law School. He suggested that we should be clear that there are major benefits of transparency, foremost among them that it encourages and enforces responsibility. But he also asserted that there are equally important benefits of confidentiality - especially in the corporate world - including innovation, development and change.

His advice to corporations was:

1. Seriously reconsider what must be confidential.

2. Manage in the expectation of a major leak.

3. If it happens, get out in front of the leak as soon as you can.

4. Keep the gap between the public and private conversations as close as you can.

Oxford University professor Timothy Garton Ash put it even more succinctly.  He supported transparency and confidentiality with this pointed advice: ‘Protect less, protect better’.

Important counsel with significant policy and cultural implications. If we provide thoughtful advice like this to management dealing with their new-found visibility we will remain on the right side of history.

Rob Flaherty is senior partner and president of Ketchum. His agency provides pro bono support to the World Economic Forum.

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