I arrived yesterday to record snow in Davos, but the eye-high snow banks did not deter the excitement and energy that accompanies the annual trek up the mountain. The theme for Davos 2012 is “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models.”
One of the opening events was an open “brainstorming” session to talk about the new realities of the relationship between business and society: Who should lead? How can value to go all “shareholders?” And what new models should we consider for the future? While there were almost 200 participants in the discussion, BBC presenter Nick Gowing made it dynamic and interesting by engaging those in the audience with people around the world through a live webcast and a hyperactive Twitter feed. It was an experiment that assured broad-based participation and a great deal of passion.
The backdrop of the session was two recently issued reports, one by Deloitte on attitudes toward business and this year's version of the Edelman Trust Barometer. The Edelman report suggested that while trust in business continued on its downward track, trust in government and its ability to solve problems plummeted in the past year. The Deloitte study demonstrated that there is strong public sentiment — post the meltdown — that business success needs to be measured by more than profits. Business should support the development of society and innovation. Many of the business leaders surveyed (75%) believed their businesses make a big impact, but in fact only 25% thought the public really believed this.
So the lines were drawn for a very interesting conversation that underpins much of what is being discussed at Davos this year. Are there new models for business that better meet societal expectations and provide business with more of a leadership role in addressing our problems and creating a better world? And, is this an appropriate role for business?
I think this is a transformational moment, but there is no obvious answer to who will take the lead or how fast the transformation will occur. From a communications perspective, I think we all have clients or know companies that have begun this process and talk about business with a purpose.
There is a much bigger communications challenge that I believe will require group action. With the lack of trust in business, its leaders, and government being incapable of providing direction, there needs to be a way to break through the shroud of discontent so the companies doing the right things have a chance to lead the way forward. We are both in need of bold thinking and a communications strategy that makes it possible to succeed.
Let's see if the mountain air of Davos provides the opportunity for fresh thinking on this issue…more to come.
As a footnote, I had the privilege of meeting Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing women in her country together to lead the path to peace. She had a very clear view of the question of the role of business in society as she is working to help the country move forward. Don't get in the way.
Margery Kraus is chair, founder, and CEO of APCO Worldwide.