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
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
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
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.