Despite a theme of "Rebuilding Trust", this year's World Economic Forum found many corporates on the back foot, wary of the many reputation risks that appear to have multiplied during a volatile economic and political period. 

The overwhelming focus on artificial intelligence reflected this state of affairs, offering the business world something of a respite from the increasingly thorny questions that are being asked of them in terms of culture wars and geopolitical polarization. 

Davos has long touted its ability to bring business, government and civil society together, but that nexus becomes increasingly fraught as stakeholder capitalism finds itself imperilled by anti-woke forces and geographic turbulence. After all, it is hard to "improve the state of the world" as WEF's tagline puts it, when CEOs are dialling down their ESG rhetoric and political leaders are amping up tribalism to win votes. 

Even so, there is no escaping the significant implications that these trends have for the communications function, colliding with a pivotal moment of transformation in terms of AI-fuelled disruption and disinformation.  

For communications chiefs, who have become an increasingly conspicuous constituency at the World Economic Forum, these issues get to the very heart of their role — not only in terms of shaping the Davos agenda, but determining the actions that need to follow. And that is no bad thing, given Davos' reputation for prioritising rhetoric above reality

To better understand the rapid change that is underway at in-house functions, PRovoke Media partnered with Weber Shandwick and Page to convene a panel of communications leaders from major companies across the globe, hosted by IBM. The following is an edited transcript of the 90-minute conversation.


  • Abhinav Kumar, global CMO, TCS
  • Bea Perez, SVP & chief communications, sustainability and strategic partnerships officer, The Coca-Cola Company
  • Brian Lott, CCO, Mubadala
  • Charlotte West, executive director, global corporate comms, Lenovo
  • Clare Conley, VP of communications, Qualcomm
  • Jim O'Leary, North America CEO, Weber Shandwick
  • Jonathan Adashek, CCO & SVP marketing/comms, IBM
  • Lauren Tilstra, chief of staff, AVP strategic communications, Verizon
  • Lynette Jackson, CCO, Siemens
  • Russell Dubner, MD & senior partner, CCO, BCG 
  • Sarah Campbell Donia, global corporate affairs leader, Randstad 
  • Arun Sudhaman, editor-in-chief, PRovoke Media (moderator) 

Essential lessons
"Question number one or question number two is still geopolitics" — Russell Dubner, BCG The Davos bubble does not always reflect the full spectrum of real world concerns, but it can be extremely useful when it comes to understanding what matters most, not just to business leaders, but to the many media in attendance. And while WEF's agenda skewed heavily towards the rise of AI this year, our communications leaders could not avoid the increasingly complex questions being asked of business in terms of geopolitics and corporate activism. 

Jim O'Leary (JOL): The delta between the mission of WEF and the reality of where the world's going is pretty significant. So there's all the conversation around dialogue, collaboration, multilateral engagement, but the reality is the world is heading in a different direction. 

Jonathan Adashek (JA): I think it's been more unified than I've seen in many years past: it is AI across the board. I think it's quite striking. The absence of geopolitics, though. You would never know that there are multiple wars and that Iran and Pakistan are escalating and all these other things happening. It's like a bubble here. It's pretty staggering.

Arun Sudhaman (AS): It's interesting because of that sense of detachment, not just geographically, but philosophically, between what's talked about here and how the real world is progressing. Page identified geopolitics as the biggest risk, and yet that hasn't necessarily come through in many conversations here.

Charlotte West (CW): Is that because it's become the status quo? I just see that as another business risk that every business is dealing with in a different way, depending on who you are. I wonder if we've just become immune to it.

JA: How many companies want to really take some aggressive stands on some of these key issues that are very divisive? You take a stand on an issue that is true to your company, but if you don't need to draw the attention to the company, I think we would all around this table say, "I don't need that spotlight on me weighing in."

Clare Conley (CC): I actually think the focus on AI has been helpful for all of us. When you do media interviews, it can get quickly to geopolitics. AI has actually been a good place for us all to go where I think there's comfort and where we can actually provide value versus weighing in on topics where you could take a position that corporations shouldn't take.

Russell Dubner (RD): Have you found that either question number one or question number two in interviews is still geopolitics? Even though we all want to talk about AI, the media still wants to understand how are we grappling with [geopolitics]. Even if you're not taking a stance, they want to understand how the dynamic has shifted because it's the biggest risk now. So — how you are planning against it is more the question set that we've seen.

Sarah Campbell Donia (SCD): I see the corporate activism trajectory going in a very different direction. And I can imagine myself in five years saying a company has a responsibility to speak out about geopolitical situations. And that's because our employees are demanding that we do something about it. I don't know how it is in the US context but, in Europe, our employees are still incredibly scared, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is causing a lot of anxiety and they want to know that their leader and their company finds peace important. I feel like ESG is going to be about peace. And that we may look back and go, "Gosh, we were so silly to think that we didn't have a role to play in that."

Lynette Jackson (LJ): What's difficult is our employees have been asking. With Russia and Ukraine, I found it a bit different because Russia was the aggressor. But with Israel and Hamas, that is so nuanced. I don't think any of us can make a statement that's going to comfort employees because it is so completely divisive.

And the other thing I would say is the questions that we've been getting have been more on a political level than geopolitics, asking our executives to comment, projecting what might happen in the US elections. There, I feel we have more of a role to play because you talk ecosystems in industry and business, but politics by its nature is polar. We're in a hiatus situation because there's so many major elections coming up and so big decisions aren't being taken at a time when there's all this uncertainty. It's frustrating that politics is not really moving things forward when there's so many challenges in our time. And that to me is my equal worry, I think on a par with geopolitics.

Lauren Tilstra (LT):  What I'm noticing, and I'm seeing it in a lot of American companies, is that people are looking internally first — is our code of conduct in the right place so that we can actually address these questions. The prediction might be a little different in that I think companies are first going to make sure that their house is in order and then talk through that to get to the message. I think it's going to be a little less about each individual crisis, but more how do we deal with it as a net whole as a company and preserve our own messaging and our own narrative and take hold and harness it. 

Abhinav Kumar (AK): Even if you don't believe as companies we have a role to play, I think the pressure from employees is only going to grow. Probably the most difficult thing, which we navigated from a comms point of view, was trying to forge the proper communication around the Israel-Hamas crisis. We saw the cautionary tales of anyone who got into trouble for making the most balanced and most humane of statements. We're still getting pressure from customers, from clients who are like, "You haven't said enough. You're not doing enough." I think that continues.

There's this numbness around all these huge geopolitical fissures and conflicts. It's almost normalized. And maybe there isn't the level of alarm which there should be with what's going on in the Middle East. We are going to enter soon the third year of the war in Europe. You can't walk two meters down the street without seeing AI. I think it represents this fundamental trend about technology becoming mainstream in the discussion at Davos. Even if you're talking about geopolitics, elections — I think the focus is really about misinformation and the role that technology platforms play in it.

Bea Perez (BP): It depends what audience you're talking to here, and if you're in a public or private forum. Privately I have found geopolitics is the conversation. And so I think it's really important that we distinguish that because I don't think any leader here or any convener here thinks it's any less important. I think it's a matter of what real conversations are taking place and do they want them on the record or not? If they're going to work to make meaningful change or solve problems, probably they don't want to let the world know yet because that could undo it.

Brian West (BW): I think there's maybe a healthy reconsideration of the role of business in the whole ESG debate as it goes through this political turmoil in the US. A couple of years ago it just felt like the expectations were that the CEO of Taco Bell had to be literate about the Oslo Accords. Business can contribute in ways that are important and core to that business. What can we as companies do in the appropriate context without feeling like your CEO has to also be a secretary for foreign affairs. Ultimately, I hope it allows companies to do what they do best and set our expectations with employees. To be a little more realistic about our role in contributing to progress and peace.

AI above all? "We've got a duty to explain it in ways that are not terrifying" — Lynette Jackson, Siemens As many of our participants noted, the focus on AI at this year's Davos sometimes seemed overwhelming — particularly given the range of complex challenges that also require urgent attention. But it also reflected how corporate communicators will need to start thinking about AI narratives in terms of their companies, and the challenges that will increase around ethics, bias and even "AI-washing."

LJ: The analogy that comes to mind is both of my children have played soccer and, when it's not a great standard, you know how everyone follows the ball. That's how it feels with these topics. As communicators, how do you make sure that you are differentiated? That's been my takeaway — I've got to go and do my homework and say, how do we, for my customers and stakeholders, talk about AI in a meaningful way. And also the responsibility we have as businesses to talk beyond our companies, beyond potential customers, potential employees. Because AI, people are scared about it. So I think we've got a duty to explain it in ways that are not terrifying. And also I'm reflecting on how can we join together in terms of educating, because otherwise every one of our companies will have some social impact program to educate on AI.

RD: I think the point about being specific on AI is a really good one. We had two flagship studies — one was on AI and one was on global trade. It was sort of 60:40 in terms of what the media cared about and what fit the dialogue. The global trade study looked at how global trade will shift over the next decade — US to China will be down almost $200 billion. And that got as much attention as research on the fact that almost 50% of employers are going to have to upskill their employees and make change.

CC: I think as technology companies, especially who are building and deploying AI, it is our responsibility to educate. The world is polarized and it's polarized on AI as with everything else. Last week we were at CES and talking about AI, but with people who are in the tech industry. And then you come here and you're like, okay, I've got to back up because I hear a very different way of communicating and my use cases have to be different. It's a good reminder to remember our audience and calibrate how we deliver the same messages. "The bit that worries me is the disinformation piece" — Charlotte West, Lenovo AS: A lot of the conversations around AI have been quite focused on explaining the technology. But there seems to be a lot of concern and fear of AI. I'm curious to know how all of you view that as a comms challenge. How do you see AI impacting your work both from a functional perspective and a reputational perspective this year?

CW: There's three distinct areas. The first one is, how does it change the way we do our job, the way we structure our teams, how we use agencies, all of those things. And I don't think it's perhaps as fundamental as people think. The second thing, particularly for us in tech, is being clear on our AI story, but also holding all of the comms team accountable to not AI wash stuff. So that we are not creating a problem that we've all then got to fix from a comms perspective in a few years time. The third element, and it's the bit that worries me and I don't have an answer for, is the disinformation piece. And we don't know what will happen in the future in terms of AI models being fed with misinformation about any of our companies and how we can actually navigate that. I don't think agencies are advising clients yet well enough on that disinformation piece.

BP: I think an opportunity here is to have a common set of guidelines and guardrails around it. And that's the gap that I see. Companies have been using AI, but generative AI is what's new. A company like Coke quickly signed up and said, we're going to use it, but engaged the consumer to do creative. And so we actually allowed the consumer to actually create our creative using our artifacts from our archive, and we put them up, Times Square, Piccadilly Circus. We also did holiday cards, and it was really engaging. The feedback we got from consumers was they loved it and they wanted more.

But then it was interesting because while we were doing that, our legal teams, everyone was working quickly to say, well, what are the guardrails? Who has frameworks? There was no real policy out there. And I think that's an opportunity for all of us to say, should we shape it? Should we really take a look at all the things that can go wrong? And then actually as an industry and as communicators, put together what those guardrails should be in a common framework. I know governments have to do that as well, but until they do, I think we need some sort of common set of principles and guardrails.

And I think about some of the work we do in water. We're using now technology, multiple sets of technology, feeding it into databases and actually having the AI give us analysis of whether there is a pending drought based off of what the data is telling us. It's very telling because what I have found in just some of the early data is that the things the AI was starting to predict happened. And I'm not going to go into details on the record here, but I think that's a very powerful way to use AI to help communities actually build resilience before these disasters occur. So, I'd also love to see all of us, whether it's comms side, corporate side, government side, use this technology to actually help society get better prepared for what's to come.

Disruption & talent "If we don't start figuring this out, comms is going to be playing catch up for a long, long time" — Jonathan Adashek, IBM The conversation on AI deepened to consider the technology's impact on the next generation of talent and the risk of losing skills and values that are deemed essential to the communications role. In addition, our participants discussed whether the comms function is being left behind by marketing advances in terms of AI. 

JA: I think [Charlotte] raised three points at the beginning. I think there's a fourth one to add, and that's skills. We have a responsibility to make sure that our teams are skilled on it, understand how to use the new tools and understand how to operate in that new world, as well. Because it's going to change the way they operate.

JOL: In terms of the skills, one of the areas that we're probably doing the most in this space for our clients is on that. We're creating custom AI sandboxes for a number of our clients now and helping train the teams on the usage. It's still very early days in terms of what's possible. 

CC:  Qualcomm, on my team, we're using a tool called Writer, which is awesome. It's a great tool — it is about the skills, but I think it's also about the habit. So I've had Writer on my computer, my whole team has, for a month now. We've been trained on it. But I am still, the team is still, going into Word first to write something, and not Writer. So I'm trying to think about ways of getting them to change their workflow habits in order to incorporate it from the beginning and it's not just an afterthought.

LJ: You mentioned guidelines and I think that there's a danger that each of us goes and [develops] guidelines internally for all of our communications teams, colleagues and anyone who has an external facing role. I think it is time to join forces. In terms of workflows and processes, it doesn't make sense for us all to do it 100, 1,000 times. It's much better to do it, iteratively, together.

CC: Maybe this is where Page can help. 

AK: Also, the quantity of things coming out. There are more than 1,000 generative AI tools coming out every month. Who has the bandwidth to examine and see? I see that Writer's the winning one. So your perspective and sharing it here is really useful. Any kind of platform which rallies people to share — each one of us uses different things — I think that will only help in making better choices. "Who preserves the integrity of what this function is?" — Lauren Tilstra, Verizon  RD: It's funny that one of the examples people use when they talk about the power of AI is to imagine how easy it's going to be for you to write your social posts. Just write social posts and that's going to solve everything. The bigger question is, let's look at the value chain of what we do across the board and where could it fit in next. On the consulting side of what BCG does, there's more opportunity, actually, in marketing right now than there is in comms for us — it really leans much harder into serving the needs of the CMO. There's so many elements that are just also about the visual creation and all the other component parts of it.

So we're dipping our toe in the water and looking for ways for it to have value. I think it's incremental, this isn't transformative technology. What I'm curious about is message testing — are there ways that you can use generative AI to understand how your message is going to be received by an audience? Because there's enough content out there that it can give you a proxy. And that's pretty cool. I haven't tested that out yet, but I like the idea of it and it makes sense that that would work.

JA: I think everybody in this room, I would bet at one point or another has been like "marketing is the evil sibling," right? They get the bigger budgets. There's always that tension between the two organizations. I'll tell you from a marketing perspective that we are putting this to use already in a very aggressive way. But I'm concerned that if we don't start figuring this out from a comms perspective, marketing is going to take off on this, and comms is going to be trying to play catch up for a long, long time. On the marketing side, my team used Firefly for an ad last year. We had 1,000 different selects in five minutes. It turned out our best performing ad for the entire year. If we don't start looking at it from a comms perspective in a much more serious way, I think there's a big problem.

CW: There has to be a balance. I think a lot of the stuff we talk about is AI helping us to be more efficient, quicker. Short term it's great, but I think long term — what is the impact of that on the core skill of a communicator? We've all been doing this job without the benefit of AI tools for our careers. Does it change the type of people we're employing? Somebody creating a summary, doing that as a human being, the critical thinking you go through to read something, analyze it from a journalist point of view — that skill might be lost if we're artificially speeding it up. I think we need to be really careful that we don't lose those, the human element.

LT: I'm also worried about the next generation. You think about how we all started in this industry. You started doing first drafts, letters to employees for CEOs, morning clips. I worry about the next generation, because I think there's already a lag in talent and especially in diverse talent. And I'm really concerned about what this is going to do. I think it's actually going to take all of us together saying, "what are the skills, to your point, worth preserving and worth cultivating in this next generation?" And how do we lean into those to make sure there's a table like this 20 years from now of really confident comms professionals, who are dealing with a whole new set of challenges that we can't even imagine right now, but who preserve the integrity of what this function is? Because I think that the integrity piece could be very easily lost in the skills development.

LJ: I'm sure that 20 or 30 years ago, people were having the same conversation about all this internet thing. What's that going to do? What's remarkable here is how quickly ChatGPT mushroomed. But I think it's down to us really having clear guidelines about when do you use it, how do you sense-check? And then I'm also optimistic that AI will probably give us the opportunity to check quality. There's some good companies that have made commitments about not issuing auto-generated content. I would say it should be used in the drafting process, but we've got guidelines. Nothing should go out of Siemens that has not been properly proofed by a human being and fact-checked as well. So I think it's about evolving technology and just making sure that we use it responsibly, and have good guidelines.

AK: I don't know if comms is really behind or not on the whole AI adoption wave, but it certainly feels it is. And maybe that's a consequence of that AI washing where everyone feels that everyone else is doing so much on it and you yourself are not. I'll tell you, we organized an event for CCOs in Paris last year around AI and using it inside communications. We got 40 people signed up for it. Then we ask them, would one of you want to talk about what you're doing and showcase a best practice? And we got silence in response.

I think we should take the pressure off it. We are still in the early stages of this tech. There are a lot of tools, a lot of capabilities, a lot of opportunity. But I think there is that perception individually inside automation, "Everyone is doing so much more than we are," — there is a perception gap.

RD: We did this scientific experiment with MIT and Harvard, where we looked at the uses of ChatGPT in different teams. And so we had 70 BCG-ers using it for different tasks, and what we found was that there was a 40% lift in creativity, or in effectiveness around creative tasks.

But there was actually a 10 or 15% drop for complex problem-solving. So what do you use it for? If you're trying to use it to set your strategy and do complex problem-solving, it's not the right tool. That's probably where you want to use predictive AI more. 
"I'm concerned about the foundational skills of being a communications professional being lost" — Clare Conley, Qualcomm LJ: And there's a massive issue in terms of using it, and it's not your mother tongue — it's harder, the nuance of language is harder. In terms of copy, it's challenging to make sure that people really sense-check, and I insist on native checks for all of the countries that we operate in. It's a superpower, but it's even more dangerous when you can't look at the nuance. It sounds great, but is it absolutely the right words to be using?

CC: I agree with Lauren that I'm concerned about the foundational skills of being a communications professional being lost. Equally, if I'm honest with my team — a lot of the work that we do, a lot of the reason why we're busy, is it's 'busy work'. I think a lot of these tools are going to be able to actually let the human use their brain more. I'm super excited. I have super smart people on my team, who are doing a lot of repetitive, quite frankly, boring tasks, that need to be done.

JOL: Someday, they'll be better at training AI than they will be at doing the repetitive tasks. We'll probably get to see it very soon.

LT: It's about the values, right? The core competency can evolve, but what is the overall ethos of what communications is about that you can preserve? I think that's so important.

JA: Those repetitive tasks. We took an HR department that was roughly 800 people down to 60 by going in and automating all the repetitive tasks. The ability to do that and to automate and augment that, and then take those people who were there and put them into more value-creating jobs. It is clearly something that we're looking at how we do.

BL: I worry about those skills being replaced by too much technology, because, ultimately, as communicators, our judgment and authenticity ought to be the hallmarks of what we do. And the generation of people on my team, it's a fairly young team who don't read a physical newspaper every day. For us to just always be in that central position of quality writing, quality editing, saying what is meant to be said, when it's just so easy to click in a few words and get something back — it's just boring copy.

Speak up or stay quiet? "As a communicator, I've never felt such a heavy burden in my whole career" — Sarah Campbell Donia, Randstad One of the dominant themes of Davos in recent years is the rising tide of populism and political polarization around the world, and the extent to which it troubles corporate leaders. Amid a fierce backlash against ESG and DEI in the US, it appears that business is becoming more reticent about taking a stand, following a period in which many spoke up on social and political issues. 

From a geopolitical perspective, the intense tribalism spurred by the Middle Eastern conflict has only elevated this sense of caution. Many might applaud the end of unfettered brand activism as a necessary correction to rampant virtue signalling, while others will decry anything that suggests the corporate world is turning its back on stakeholder capitalism. 

But not all our panellists agreed, with several arguing that companies cannot simply jettison their responsibilities to society in general, even as social and political forces call into question the principles of globalisation and economic consensus.  

LJ: As I said at the beginning, Russia, no question. There was a clear aggressor. I think we've got to really be cautious. Something goes wrong, and the first call is to our offices. I think you've got to look at all the different lenses. As a global company, think about your different stakeholders. And then, you're thinking in least worst context rather than the best. So, I don't think you can say out-and-out that the next issue we should or should not comment. And then having good processes internally and the discipline of looking at it from all the different lenses and not shying away. I completely agree; we have a role. 176 years, our founder believed in his role in society, and that's one of the reasons I like working for our company, because we do believe we have a role in society. But it doesn't mean that every time and word counts, and that's what's fascinating with Israel and Gaza. I was accused of bias on both sides.

CW: For me, the geopolitical debate is — how do we speak to our employees, what issues do we stand up for, given the geopolitical context in the world. But I think we need to look at something different now, if our job is to ensure that the businesses that we work for have a license to operate in the future. An element of that is driven by what you say publicly but it's much more about businesses possibly having to restructure in the future, possibly having to segregate their businesses in the future. If we look at globalization as a trend, and some people say we're now in a time where it's de-globalization, and we saw big multinationals created because they acquired businesses from around the world — is it going to go back to more siloed approaches?

For comms people, if any of our businesses choose to do that, that's massive — in a way, far more important. I'm not belittling the Ukraine or Russia situation or Israel-Hamas, that's change management. We've seen it with Sequoia Capital, I think was one last year that unpicked its business into very distinct entities to navigate the geopolitical challenges. That is what will be discussed by our leaders around the board table. That's the bit that we have to consult on now and ask questions of our leaders.

BP: It's more complex than maybe what people realize on the surface. Is this core to your company? What unintended consequences will you potentially create by having a position or not having a position? Could you put your employees in harm's way? And so, employees should always come first in terms of their safety. I think that those are some of the key questions before you even get to a statement. It's not as easy as people realize when people from the outside say, "Oh, that company spoke up."

CC: When asked these types of questions, you can always pivot to where it does impact you. It's the discipline of doing that. A number of years ago, we were pressured into having an opinion on all these social issues. It was never comfortable, but there was enough pressure that we fell for it, almost. I think, now, everyone's realized that we don't have a role there as a corporation. I know that every time something happens, there's always a really loud voice coming to me saying, "We've got to say something." I always ask, "Who are we saying it to?" The answer generally is our employees want it. Okay, we don't then need to tweet it. Now let's look at our employees. What do they want us to say? They're highly polarized. So, maybe, let's get back to a place of neutrality.

LJ: But also creating respect. That was my massive learning. I think that's interesting for communications professionals. I work hand-in-hand, as probably all of you do, with our chief compliance and chief human rights officers. We really took a backward step to learn lessons from Israel and Hamas. We've looked at our guidelines. We will not tolerate divisive content. And we've updated our policies to talk about respect. Within a company, it's not the place to be talking about politics or religion. There's no place for racism. Now I feel when, not if, the next situation comes up, I won't have to be phoning around colleagues to see. I think we're in a good shape. Everyone should be able to feel comfortable in their place of work. Having these divisive conversations is just not okay.

LT: When I said the trend is companies looking more inside first, it's because — if your value set matches what your business is trying to accomplish — if you look inside first and you talk through that, it's very easy. Can we take an action that actually yields impact in an unbiased way that ties back to what we're trying to accomplish as a business? And so, I do think that trend of looking inside first is going to be really critical for all of us, because this is going to be a consistent theme through the rest of the year. "The pushback against woke capitalism and the anti-ESG movement is very real" — Jim O'Leary, Weber Shandwick SCD: Companies have a role in peace. We're in a time where I don't think any of us can imagine what could happen in the next couple of years. We might be looking at what happened 100 years ago. Do you think companies sat back then and said, we're not going to be part of this? How do we provide social cohesion where there are no institutions doing that? As a communicator, I've never felt such a heavy burden in my whole career because I think we are the people that can convene these discussions and we can do it with structure and we can do it with clear-headedness. And what if we could take what we do in our companies and help our employees amplify that into their communities? How can we leverage our employees to be corporate citizens that are contributing to a more peaceful world? I think that's going to benefit everybody.

JOL: It's really a very US-centric thing in many ways right now. Certainly in the election years it's going to be more the case, but the pushback against woke capitalism and the anti-ESG movement is very real. And I see it across all of our clients. I don't feel like most companies are necessarily walking back sustainability commitments, but they'll talk about sustainability in different ways than they would have a year ago. I assume most of your companies probably do now. Even the terms ESG or DEI are a bit polarizing now in the US, It's only going to get more so this year with the election going on. So, it's very significant.