Davos Voices: Industry Leaders Assess PR Lessons From World Economic Forum
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Davos Voices: Industry Leaders Assess PR Lessons From World Economic Forum

A selection of PR industry leaders explain the key lessons for communicators from this year's World Economic Forum in Davos.

Arun Sudhaman

This year's World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos was low on soaring rhetoric, reflecting the austere economic climate and sheer variety of complex issues that continue to confront the planet.

A drop in glitz and glamour, however, should not obscure the importance of the debates among the global elite at the snow-clad summit. Many of these forums, featuring leaders from the worlds of business, government and NGOs, are now conducted in the language of public relations, a trend we examined last year. As Ketchum CEO Rob Flaherty puts it below, Davos increasingly feels like a communications conference, "one with with a really, really big budget."

Flaherty is just one of many PR industry leaders that now make the annual pilgrimage to the Swiss Alps. Six of them write for the Holmes Report below, outlining the critical lessons that communicators should take away from this year's event.

A demure Davos
Matthew J. Harrington, chief operating officer, Edelman
The tone of the 2013 World Economic Forum can best be described as “subdued” – far less troubled than it was two years ago as protests in Egypt broke out, and less nerve-wracked than last year in early days of European economic turbulence. Instead, there is an emerging view that we have entered a "new normal," a time when returning to past boom days is unlikely, and so we must, as they say in Britain, "keep calm and carry on."

This environment presents significant opportunity for public relations. At a time of underlying cynicism and even resignation, organizations must clearly and consistently articulate their sense of purpose to all stakeholders in order to build trust and, in turn, get any job done. Edelman's 2013 Trust Barometer, released at the Forum this week, outlined that although trust in business, government, media and NGOs went up, trust in leadership –CEOs and elected officials – went down. As a result, leaders need our counsel to help restore trust in order to advance the interests of their businesses or nations.

Social media was viewed as vital to rebuilding this trust and improving conversation between leaders, citizens, employees and all stakeholders. Any sense from prior meetings that social media was an "optional sport" had wholly disappeared.

The importance of internal communications was another key theme, as was the critical role storytelling serves in conveying strategy and aligning shared interests. When thinking about future opportunities, Africa was a highlight—specifically nations including Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa that are experiencing growth and emerging consumer markets. Asia broadly, and China specifically, continued to be in the spotlight.

In sum, there were few big headlines from this year's meeting. But this didn’t trouble me as perhaps it indicates some lessons have been learned about the folly of making deeps swings from irrational exuberance to doom and gloom. The new normal lies somewhere in the middle.

Resilience and perseverance
Don Baer, worldwide chair and CEO, Burson-Marsteller
The overall mood at Davos 2013 was one of sober optimism: A consensus that the economy will continue to improve, but with serious anxiety about whether growth is sustainable. As one of our clients, the CEO of a Fortune 200 company, told me at Davos, his board is judging his performance on only two factors – resilience and perseverance. That simultaneous ability to adapt while staying the course in the face of rapid change is a good summary of the lessons for the public relations and communications sector emerging from this year’s World Economic Forum.

In the face of this uncertainty, it was clear last week in discussions with clients and other world leaders that we have to continue to go well beyond the traditional blocking and tackling of public relations to prove our value. As one of them said at Davos, clients “want a thought partner, a catalyst to consider outside viewpoints and strategic, creative thinking while, at the same time, someone who will jump in and help deliver meaningful results.” As has been the case over the last several years, the marketplace that world leaders at Davos say is emerging will continue to demand more and more of us – which is exactly what makes our work so exciting.

The transforming power of communities
Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO, Ruder Finn
I felt that 2013 was one of the best WEF sessions of the past several years. What stood out for me – and what’s relevant to us as communications professionals – was the focus on how information flows impact us. The airing of thoughts on the mounting power of communities and the social channels that sustain and empower them provided significant insights.

The question of leadership was a popular topic, as was how to manage companies in an era of uncertainty to achieve what was called in one session “enterprise resilience.”  Columbia Business School Professor Sheena Iyengar deepened the discussion in asking how you develop strong leadership in today’s large global companies. She went on to define the concept of dialogue networks, based on the fact that organizations are comprised of human networks. A great corporate leader today interacts and gains insights from many networks within the company. A leader has to gain an understanding of the differences in the narratives. In these discussions, a common ground of shared values emerges which has the ability to unite employees. Data analysis of conversations within companies, illustrate levels of collaboration and how to connect people in problem solving, sharing ideas, driving new product development.

Leadership needs to go outside usual systems, to get at the common goals and to most effectively reach people. In answering the much asked question of who do you trust, Atsutoshi Nishida Chairman of the Board of Toshiba commented if you don’t trust your employees you will not get anywhere. Multinationals are comprised of geographic communities, diverse professional functions, those with widely differing business responsibilities. It’s clear that internal communications across the enterprise is vital today, and that trust needs to be built bottom up and top down, with a sustained conversation that generates engagement. 

Cautious optimism
Olivier Fleurot, CEO, MSLGroup
In 2012 the general mood in Davos was rather gloomy: all eyes were on the Eurozone crisis. But last week, the mood shifted to cautious optimism, thanks to strong initiatives taken by Mario Draghi at the ECB and the work done by Michel Barnier on banking union and supervision. Behind closed doors, you heard that neither Greece, nor Italy were off the hook. Then, Britain's David Cameron announced his intention to organize a referendum on Europe, which was not well received: now Britain and Europe face years of uncertainty and investors hate uncertainty. It was no surprise that Angela Merkel spoke of a more integrated, federation-type system, much like the German one. 

There was a riveting session on China’s global agenda: is the new regime going to be more assertive as a global political power or will it focus mainly on boosting a slowing domestic economy? Africa was for once discussed as a continent of potential growth and less as a source of trouble, despite the war in Mali.

Women started to speak up in this male-dominated forum. Represented by Christine Lagarde, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, amongst many others, they challenged their male peers to do much more for women's empowerment in politics and business. The WEF must be congratulated for encouraging such a debate and setting a one-woman-in-five quota for strategic business partners attending, to help ensure greater gender diversity.

Several sessions focused on how companies should review their values, beyond shareholder value. There was a clear understanding that governments alone are unable to solve global challenges such as climate change, poverty, and major diseases – and that companies must step up to the plate. Only by creating a sense of shared purpose and values, embedding them in their strategy, and then aligning incentives to reflect the needs of all their stakeholders can companies enjoy sustainable development and attract the young talent they badly need to navigate a much more complex world. 

The Young Global Leaders forum – a next-generation leadership community that is mission-led and principle-driven showed “old” leaders new ways to create shared value. A very good session overall: the WEF is often criticised, but the networking and the highly valuable discussions one can have in four days with people from all continents, have no equivalent.

The unstoppable march of transparency
Rob Flaherty, senior partner and CEO, Ketchum
The sessions at Davos this year were so relevant to our business that at times it felt like we were attending a communications conference -- one with with a really, really big budget.

Of course there were speeches by heads of state and geopolitical leaders, including Cameron, Merkel, Medvedev, Lagarde, Kissinger and others. There were many sessions on the financial crisis and social issues. All of these are insightful for our business.

But many other aspects of the snow-shrouded gathering were even more relevant. First, the meeting was a laboratory to witness the unstoppable march of transparency fueled by Twitter and other platforms. My first blog post last week celebrated the unfettered tweeting in every session and was titled, "The World Economic Fishbowl." 

A whole curriculum of sessions were spot-on for communicators. Here are insights from three:

From Tabloid to Tablet: "Journalists are not in the content business," asserted Jeff Jarvis, author, journalist and creator of BuzzMachine. "Content just fills things up (like a bucket). We need to re-think our role. We should be achieving relevance by adding value to the conversation already out there." In the PR and communications business we love to say we create content. It's better to think of our role as performing a service, adding value and achieving relevance.

The Social Technology Context: "In China, social platforms like Weibo are creating an arms race between control and freedom," said Chan Yuenying, a professor at the University of Hong Kong. "The government does not appreciate the disruptive power of social media." The fact that the courageous former journalist said that was striking enough. To see it tweeted by attendees to the world was even more striking. In the same session, Joe Schoendorf of Accel Partners, the equity firm behind Facebook, said, "The term 'social' is about to go away like the title 'vice president of electricity' did a hundred years ago."

Online Power: This session, which included Arianna Huffington and Jimmy Wales, included this advice, once again from Jeff Jarvis: "Don't try to create a movement. Give a nascent movement 'elegant organization.' Which can be as simple as establishing the hashtag for an event or other forms of helping a community to connect." Great advice for the many of us who are asked to mobilize a movement.

Digital wildfires
Caroline Wunnerlich, EVP and regional director EMEA, Fleishman-Hillard
'Digital Wildfires' was the title of a session I attended on the last morning of Davos. It addressed the issue of how misinformation in the digital sphere can flare up and lead to social unrest and even geopolitical conflict. The debate focused on the problem of anonymity online, and how far social media should, or could, be regulated. But the conclusion was clear: social media cannot be effectively controlled, and so the online community needs to respond critically, and society itself must adjust to become its own self-correcting mechanism.

This theme had been echoed in an earlier lunchtime roundtable entitled 'From Tabloid to Tablet' chaired by Stephen Adler, President and Editor-in-Chief of Reuters. While the commercial outlook for print media remains uncertain, it was clear that in the digital age quality journalism from premium publications such as the FT and New York Times is being looked to for verified facts, judgment and analysis. In the flood of online sources, leading media have a key role to play in generating transparent and trusted news coverage.

Here we are back to the themes of transparency and trust that pervaded much of this year's WEF. Whether in the speeches of David Cameron or Christine Lagarde, whether in the panel debates on digital infrastructure and data protection or on the role of banks in the real economy, the 'T' words came up again and again. They were joined by a notable third 'T': Twitter. It was a subject of much conversation that the WEF was struggling to reconcile the traditional Chatham House rules of the conference with the legions of participants who were this year busily tweeting from the Magic Mountain. And so it is that digital communications have not just changed our industry, they are changing the face of global debate. 

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