Muted Davos raises questions for PR

The World Economic Forum's (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this year varied dramatically from previous years.

The World Economic Forum's (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this year varied dramatically from previous years. It was held during the bleakest economic outlook in more than a decade, at a time when public confidence in CEOs and world leaders has plummeted to new lows.

The meeting was fraught with pessimism. Many CEOs cancelled at the last minute. There were few Americans, and even fewer from Wall Street. Three points surfaced as top priorities for emerging from this crisis: restoring trust, laying moral and ethical foundations, and implementing decisive leadership despite imperfect information.

Each of these areas demand strong communications. But if the dialogue at Davos is evidence of what's to come for business and PR, it won't be an easy job. Throughout days of discussion, there was much visible tension, manifested by several dichotomies, which will challenge those of us in PR.
  • Panic vs. confidence. Several people forecast that the world's current economic state will extend into a lengthy, several-year period of economic difficulty. More optimistically, others saw it as a chance to encourage innovation, drive down costs, and increase efficiency. PR will need to help audiences understand the long-term vision needed to achieve these goals in an otherwise ominous climate.

  • Complexity vs. transparency. A number of people believed that, if financial institutions had provided more clarity in describing the risks they were taking, the downward spiral could have been stemmed.  Others noted that transparency is moot given the complexity of global finance. Ultimately, management will need to make clear that they have not lost touch with reality, and this will require remodeling corporate governance messages.

  • Regulation vs. free market. Some were on the side of an overarching global regulatory body to control the world's financial risks, while others wanted fewer but better rules. PR practitioners will be faced with the task of ensuring that businesses are being perceived as reacting in a pragmatic yet deliberate manner.

  • Business vs. government. Although there was a far greater number of business leaders, government representatives included such high-level names as Vladimir Putin, Shimon Peres, Wen Jiabao, Angela Merkel, and Gordon Brown. As governments increasingly scrutinize their economies, businesses will have to ensure they refocus their messages and target audiences.

  • Global vs. domestic. Globalization is recognized as being both an “angel and the devil.” Business investment has offered growth, but the current fall-off in worldwide consumption has forged a dramatic downturn. Protectionist fears loom large, threatening the ability of businesses to communicate rationally.

Many other opinions were contested at the meeting, and disagreements are worsened by bad communications. To see progress, communicators should heed Bill Clinton's Davos advice: We all have to get out of this together, and it's not the time to pick new fights. n
Kathy Bloomgarden is the co-CEO of Ruder Finn.

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