Tuesday 21 January 2020 8:19 pm

Davos Diary: Day 2

Paul Blanchard is founder of global reputation management practice Right Angles, host of the Media Masters podcast and author of Fast PR

Today we hit the ground running at the World Economic Forum. It’s been a big day, with speeches by Greta Thunberg and President Trump, which is, as you would expect, the whole spectrum of opinion when it comes to climate change, sustainability and environmental concerns. They couldn’t be any more different, of course: Ms Thunberg is still riding the wave of publicity which saw her address the United Nations Climate Action Summit, while President Trump is preoccupied with the impeachment process in Washington DC.

Greta Thunberg, who recently turned 17, has embraced her status as a global icon with aplomb. She has ascended to that level of fame at which she is known simply by her first name, like Malala or Diana. I have to say that she is a magnetic speaker, in an unusual way: passionate, palpably angry and frustrated, but of unimpeachable honesty. Her message was stark and uncompromising: “People are dying from climate change. Every fraction of a degree matters.” No punches pulled, no words nuanced. You could feel in the hall that she hit home.

Donald Trump is a very different proposition, as you’d expect. He was predictably late on stage, which built the anticipation, and when he did arrive, it became clear very quickly that his narrative was going to be much more positive than Ms Thunberg’s. He has some of President Reagan’s unshakeable optimism, though he bullies where Reagan charmed. He talked about an economic boom the likes of which the world had never seen; even when you dial out his standard hyperbole, this is a very rosy view of the global situation. Trump also referred to “removing the roadblocks to success, and rewarding businesses who support their workers and their communities”, which may play well to Middle America, his natural heartland, but sat uncomfortably with a high-level audience who had gathered to talk about sustainability. 

The Forum is founded on the concept of dialogue, and its ability to effect great change on an international scale. That’s what Klaus Schwab had in mind at the very first gathering in 1971, and it’s the vision that still inspires him. I accept that philosophy wholeheartedly, and it’s proving fascinating to watch it at work first-hand.

But as I stood in the hall, I couldn’t help observing that the reception he got from the audience was muted. The phrase I used to a colleague was “polite disdain”. The President’s rousing stump speech—”This is a time of tremendous optimism”—just wasn’t what was wanted, or needed.

Since reputation management is what I do, an observation: make your message relevant and appropriate. If you aspire to genuine leadership, you must persuade, and capture the imagination of your audience, whether you’re a Swedish schoolgirl missing her lessons or the most powerful man in the world.

A third speaker really brought this home to me. Today’s session was opened by the new President of the Swiss Confederation, Simonetta Sommaruga. I try to keep abreast of world events, but Swiss politics sometimes slips off my radar, so this was the first time I’d heard Ms Sommaruga speak, and I was hugely impressed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she began, “the world is on fire.” That had my attention.

The reason I mention her is that the Swiss president is unlikely ever to be a leading world figure, but she used her opportunity and judged the audience perfectly, impressing them with the power and gravity of her words. She had a witty analogy for the climate crisis facing the world: “When you take out one screw out of the Eiffel Tower, you first won’t notice it. But at some point, just taking out one more will make the whole construction collapse.” That kept the attention.

So much has happened I could write an essay: a project to accelerate nature restoration and address biodiversity by planting a trillion trees; a call for addressing bias and inequality by focusing on companies’ economic performance; a seminar on nurturing the next generation of change-makers. And it’s only the afternoon! Much more to come over the rest of the week, and I’m looking forward to taking it all in.

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