EDITORIAL: Social actions have to go beyond words

As 2,700 world leaders come to New York for the World Economic

Forum, the ability of global companies and their leaders to demonstrate

real social responsibility will be under the microscope again.

The decision to move the forum from Davos - a cutesy, playground of the

rich ski resort in the Swiss Alps - to New York has been characterized

by many in the media as a clever PR-motivated move.

It will undoubtedly help New York, still suffering in the aftermath of

September 11, by bringing in millions of dollars in revenue for

restaurants, hotels and retailers. And as The New York Times pointed

out: "The value of international TV coverage of the forum is


But Forum founder Klaus Schwab was not only thinking of PR value when he

moved his high power pow wow to the Big Apple. Some of the grand poobahs

who attend his event annually came away from last year's forum sounding

less enthusiastic than usual, and some media pundits think he hopes a

temporary venue change will reinvigorate them.

The more cynical press members have also noted that moving the event to

the wounded city provides Schwab and his delegates a protection of sorts

against anti-globalization protesters who see this meeting as a great

target for highlighting their concerns. Although some groups have said

they find the notion that September 11 should stop them exercising their

right to protest ridiculous, others think there will be considerably

less protesters.

John Sellers, executive director of the human rights group the Ruckus

Society, comments: "I don't trust the media to make us look anything

other than ugly and unreasonable, particularly when we'd be standing

across the barricades from New York's finest, the heroes of September

11." So perhaps the doyens of capitalism will enjoy a brief respite from

some of their fiercest detractors.

Schwab has also gotten a few anti-globalists to do their work on the

other side of the barricades, having invited Sara Horowitz of Working

Today, and Peter Brey, general secretary of Terre des Hommes, to take

part in the conference. Further attempts to adapt to the new world order

include the incorporation of sessions about religion and the injection

of moral values into the global economic project.

But while such tactics are laudable, if the idea is to actually listen

to what these people want, they are more likely to be seen as exactly

the kind of insincere lip service which infuriates many in the

anti-globalization movement.

Let's hope the increasing number of corporate communications departments

and PR firms that devote a growing chunk of resources to corporate

social responsibility have not missed this point. The opportunities in

this area are vast, and it is invaluable and rewarding work, but their

efforts will be wasted if they do not recognize that this must be about

changing behavior in the short term, with the hope that they can change

long-term perceptions.

Sure, understanding and talking with NGOs will help improve relations

with them, but they'll only be truly pacified if they see genuine change

within an organization. Greenpeace head Gerd Leipold turned up at Davos

last year and had, he said, great dialogue with the automakers about

emissions, but was then annoyed to see no follow-up action. "Nice talks

in nice places aren't good enough," he says.

And he is right. It is PR's job to ensure that its social responsibility

work goes beyond talk.

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