Davos shows companies can't just be Switzerland

From Edelman's Trust Barometer to Larry Fink's CEO letter to Martin Sorrell's CNBC appearance, reputation, purpose, and the important role of communications were all top of mind.

Edelman has done a great job establishing its Trust Barometer as a de facto bellwether of credibility in business, government, media, and NGOs – and Davos in Switzerland in January is the perfect place to unveil these tablets of stone.

Agency CEO Richard Edelman found himself on the same platform as WPP CEO Martin Sorrell on CNBC this week, discussing his eponymous Trust Barometer, which is great profile for the study and the firm.

Last year at this time, Edelman guested on 'The PR Week' podcast a few days after Sean Spicer’s infamous debut press conference as White House press secretary. In the interim, Edelman has certainly regained his crown as the best-known PR pro in the world from short-term upstart Spicer - if he ever lost it.

Anything that stimulates discussion among the global business elite, media, and watching world about reputation, authenticity, and transparency has to be welcomed.

But the trouble with studies such as this is that, especially when you look at them as a continuum rather than in isolation each calendar year, they often throw up trends that completely contradict what was said 12 months prior – or even within the same survey.

For example, this year’s Trust Barometer showed a complete collapse in faith in the media, which is now the least-trusted institution globally. Its trust scores are below 50% in 22 of 28 countries surveyed. But, counterintuitively, there is renewed faith in journalists, with 20 of 28 countries seeing a double-digit increase in their credibility.

Last year, a "person like yourself" was the big story, with Richard Edelman commenting at the time on his 6 A.M. blog: "’A person like yourself’ is now as credible as an academic or technical expert, and far more credible than a CEO or government official, implying that the primary axis of communications is now horizontal or peer-to-peer, evidence of dispersion of authority to friends and family."

This year, Edelman told CNBC: "We found in the data a real hunger for knowledge and expertise; that ‘a person like yourself’ is going down, that technical experts, academics, CEOs are going up. We want to have people we can trust giving us information."

It’s clear we are living in unprecedented times in terms of change and the fractured nature of public discourse, but is it really as tempestuous as these diametrically opposed trends split by just 12 months are showing?

If so, the PR pro’s job amid such constantly shifting sands in understanding the "primary axis of communications" and the media and stakeholder environments in which they operate is becoming almost impossible.

Anyway, at least people are talking about reputation and communication, with some starting to call Davos the "new Cannes." Unlike Cannes, CCOs are there in force, accompanying their CEOs as trusted advisers.

As Mars’ VP of corporate affairs and strategic initiatives Andy Pharoah told us on our latest ‘The PR Week’ podcast, companies can’t attend Davos unless their CEO is there. Pharoah’s reflections on Davos and other news trends are well worth listening to, by the way.

Another welcome topic of conversation this week in the snow-covered Swiss town was Larry Fink at BlackRock’s letter to CEOs his company invests in, emphasizing the need to embrace all stakeholders in this paradoxical environment of high returns and high anxiety, and not just to pander to shareholder expectations.

In some ways, Fink preempted the Trust Barometer when he noted that many governments are failing to prepare for the future and society is increasingly turning to the private sector and asking companies to respond to broader societal challenges.

He added that public expectation demands companies serve a social purpose to prosper over time, and that without a sense of purpose no company can achieve its full potential.

Fink echoed Harold Burson’s long-held belief that companies have been too focused on quarterly results and that shareholder engagement has been too focused on annual meetings and proxy votes.

This must be music to the ears of anyone involved in PR, corporate reputation, and communication. When the CEO of a $6 trillion global investment firm says something like this, the business world stands up and pays attention. In the U.S., hopefully it will flow into corporations’ plans when they consider how to distribute their financial windfalls from lower corporate tax rates and cash repatriation.

Back in Davos, Sorrell told CNBC: "We probably overcomplicate this. If you're in business for the long term, you will do things that are positive in relation to all stakeholders. You embrace all those communities and build a strategy that is good for society in the long term."

I’m sure that sounds super-intuitive to most people working in PR and communications, but the data in Edelman’s Trust Barometer this year suggests there is a long way to go before this logic is infused in most corporations.

One thing is for sure, the CCOs accompanying their CEOs in Switzerland - and those executives such as Pharoah whose enterprises choose not to play at Davos - are key cogs in the process of restoring trust in business, CEOs, and the mainstream economic order.

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