In her role as European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly holds the EU’s institutions and bodies to account: witness her recent critique of the European Investment Bank’s mishandling of complaints over its investment in a major mining project in Madagascar, or her finding of maladministration in former EU president Jose Manuel Barroso’s new job at Goldman Sachs.

The EACD was therefore delighted to welcome Emily O’Reilly as opening speaker for its 2019 Brussels Debate on corporate citizenship in a polarised world, held at the impressive premises of AXA Belgium in Brussels’ Place du Trône.

Seeing polarisation as a failure to work for the common good, she defined real leadership as being true to the core belief of what is good for public benefit, and praised the role of communications as part of the conscience of the company, not someone to clean up after a crisis.

Taking points raised in Emily’ keynote as starting points, our panel of speakers represented business, politics and corporate affairs.

Torsten Albig, vice president corporate representation Brussels for package delivery and supply chain management company Deutsche Post DHL, spoke about the contradictions in the contemporary conversations about corporate citizenship: we all want a greener world, but we want it fast, ignoring the long-term schedules of companies, and we don’t want to give up on a never-ending supply of bigger, better products in the market.

Inge Massen, global director of purpose and brand at Royal DSM, a science-based company in nutrition, health and sustainable living, gave a spirited account of DSM’s purpose-led business strategy, and the need for a cross-functional, internal-boundary dissolving collaboration to rally around citizenship – the role of corporate communicators here is to kick start the necessary dialogue, she suggested.

Alex Aiken, executive director of communications at the UK Government, called on the communications profession to overcome polarisation by listening to disaffected groups and engaging them with the age-old building blocks of narrative storytelling.

The following panel discussion – moderated by Inge Wallage (EACD managing director) and Marcel Halma (chief communications officer a.i., Nouryon and coordinator of the EACD's Corporate Citizenship Working Group) – covered a wide area, from taxation to CSR, leadership and Brexit: incisive follow-up questions from the audience showed just how central these concerns are for today’s communications and corporate affairs professionals.

Our special thanks to AXA’s Vincent Joye and Joëlle Marbehant for providing generous support for this event.