Though the Swiss army troops on security detail tend to bark instructions in Schweizerdeutsch if you stray off-piste, inside the Congress Centre the Davos language is English. A few visiting leaders insist on their own language – Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is dispensing bromides in Russian as I blog – but all the debates are in English, which might be thought to give talkative Brits a competitive advantage.
There is some truth in that, and the UK chattering classes are probably over-represented. We outpunch our gross domestic product. But the Davos language is not quite the English one finds on the pink pages, or indeed in Prime Ministerial speeches.
At a session on the crisis of confidence in business the moderator told us that after the initial presentations there would be plenty of time “for your interrogatives”. As the presenters talked movingly of the crucial need for businesses to communicate clearly and fully with their stakeholders, I had the leisure to ponder why the word “question” has become somehow too blunt and vulgar to use in polite company.
When we got round to the interrogatives, it turned out that “answers” are also out of fashion. After a rather penetrating initial interrogative from the floor, the CEO of NYSE Euronext was asked: “Do you want to log on to this?” Duncan Niederauer speaks Davosian like a native, and responded without a moment’s hesitation. He knew what to do at the end of the session, too, when the panelists were asked for a “headline benediction”, which means a “closing comment”, I think. Certainly no one took it literally and swung a thurible around the platform.
Between the interrogatives and the benediction the speakers worried aloud about the decline of trust in business leaders, which the FT reported last week. New polling in the US shows that only 18 per cent of those surveyed believe that business leaders tell the truth in a difficult situation, slightly fewer than those who trust politicians. They are trusted much less than the institutions they represent.
This is a bit of a blow to the well-meaning Davos crowd. How can it be? An American produced a list of conspicuous failures over the past year or two, which he thought contributed to bad headlines and damaged reputation. The list included Bernie Madoff, Bo Xilai and George Entwistle, which seemed a bit harsh on the ex-DG. His BBC tenure may not have been glorious, but even the Daily Mail has not argued that he has real blood on his hands.
By contrast, the list of good guys, showing the rest of us the way to better corporate social responsibility, included Howard Schultz of Starbucks, which I guess shows that news doesn’t travel as fast as we might think across the Atlantic, or that the US concept of CSR doesn’t necessarily include paying tax.
What is the answer? How can business leaders become loved and revered again? “Profit with purpose” was the favourite headline benediction. Log on to that.
Howard Davies will be writing from Davos for the FT A-List throughout the week. Click here to read previous entries.