CEOs are increasingly called upon to address the impacts of innovation not only within their businesses but also in society at large. This was one of the main findings of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, which was released for the World Economic Forum in Davos this year and revealed that while 62% of people expect CEOs to manage societal changes, innovation is being managed poorly by business leaders, resulting in increased polarisation.

In light of these findings, Commetric decided to analyse how CEOs talk about innovation at Davos 2024, where AI was the most prominent topic, as per our thematic analysis of 521 English-language articles around WEF published in January:

The issue: few CEOs addressed AI’s societal implications

In line with Edelman’s report, our research found that the discourse on the ethical and societal implications of AI at Davos was notably more prevalent among public officials and politicians rather than corporate leaders.

The most notable exception was Sam Altman of OpenAI, who became the most influential CEO in the Davos media debate, as we found in our stakeholder analysis. He gained his influence not just because he runs the world’s most hyped-up company right now but because of his ability to communicate effectively about social issues:

Altman was widely quoted as recognising the long-term impact of AI, particularly artificial general intelligence (AGI), but moderated the hype surrounding its immediate effects on society and jobs. He framed AI more as a productivity tool rather than a societal disruptor, emphasising a balanced outlook on its evolution and application.

Another significant exception was Marc Benioff of Salesforce, who stood out for his advocacy of AI as a dual force capable of both creating and bridging socio-economic inequalities. Benioff’s perspective on AI went beyond mere technological advancement, viewing it almost as a human right and emphasising the need for its responsible and equitable deployment.

Most CEOs were pragmatic observers

Our granular message analysis found that most CEOs at Davos adopted an attitude of pragmatic observers when it came to AI and innovation – they approached these technologies with a practical, results-oriented mindset, focusing on the tangible impacts and market implications in their respective industries.

For example, Cisco’s Chuck Robbins highlighted the inflated valuations in the AI sector, pointing out the irony of these surges following an economic correction period. Likewise, Nasdaq’s Adena Friedman emphasised the investor frenzy around AI, tempered by the challenges of a higher interest rate environment.

Intel’s Pat Gelsinger and Verizon’s Hans Vestberg also echoed this sentiment, discussing the need for comprehensive infrastructure to support AI and its practical applications in telecommunications, respectively.

Meanwhile, Tejpreet Chopra of BLP Group further exemplified the pragmatic observer trend by focusing on using AI for specific, internal tasks to achieve immediate benefits.

Cautious optimists and bullish visionaries talked about productivity

The second most prevalent group of CEOs, whom we characterised as cautious optimists, communicated a balanced perspective, acknowledging the transformative potential of AI but also offering a realistic understanding of its current limitations.

For instance, Victor Riparbelli of Synthesia talked of AI’s potential while being cautious about its current enterprise readiness and broader implications. Jensen Huang of NVIDIA also aligned with this category by highlighting AI’s future promise but pointing out present constraints like skills gaps and computing costs.

Another cluster of CEOs, whom we regarded as bullish visionaries, shared their strong optimism and belief in AI’s transformative potential, likening its impact to major technological milestones of the past.

Satya Nadella of Microsoft was a prime example, viewing AI as a pivotal moment akin to the personal computer revolution. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon also touted AI’s “tremendous” impact on the world, calling the technology “crucial.”

Similarly, Vasant Narasimhan of Novartis showcased this visionary outlook through his collaboration with Microsoft on AI in drug design, seeing AI as a key innovator in the pharmaceutical industry.

The bottom line: CEOs need better AI comms strategies

Our case study corroborated Edelman’s finding that CEOs often fail to communicate effectively about innovation’s impact, limiting their discourse to business implications and neglecting the broader societal context. This oversight is particularly problematic given the increasing politicisation when it comes to AI, with a lot of people around the world thinking that innovation is leaving them behind.

As businesses are deemed the most trusted institutions in shifting societal perceptions of innovation, CEOs have a pivotal role in crafting inclusive messages that resonate with both the general population and informed elites. CEOs must broaden their communication strategies to encompass these diverse perspectives, ensuring that discussions about innovation are accessible, relatable, and address potential societal impacts like job training and the ethical implications of technological advancements.

For example, pragmatic observers should concentrate on providing clear, factual insights into how AI and automation will impact jobs and the workforce. Their communication strategy should include practical examples of AI implementation, addressing concerns and questions from the public and ensuring that their messages offer a balanced view of innovation’s benefits and challenges.

Cautious optimists, on the other hand, should focus on balancing the optimism surrounding AI and innovation with a realistic assessment of their impact on society. Communication should include discussions about how innovation will reshape job skills and training in the future, reassuring both the general public and industry experts.

Similarly, bullish visionaries should harness their enthusiasm to engage and inspire a broad audience about the positive aspects of innovation. Their communication should not only highlight the transformative potential of AI but also address how it can be developed and used responsibly to help society at large.

In the meantime, ethics advocates are well-placed to drive the conversation about the societal implications of AI, focusing on ethical use and equitable access. They should speak more openly about the potential of AI to either bridge or widen socio-economic gaps, emphasising the need for responsible deployment and the safeguarding of jobs.

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