The convening power of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is nothing short of breathtaking – just like the view from the mountains of Davos itself. To assemble 3,000 delegates of such quality – across 300 sessions in five days – to discuss the world’s most pressing problems and opportunities is both just and noble. While non-delegates can easily take shots at the gathering because of the ‘elitist, privileged and entitled’ aura around a Swiss Alps getaway with champagne receptions, it is not a productive endeavour. As one delegate put it to me over the weekend, Davos’ insiders view such commentary as ‘jealousy’.

Our industry’s trade publications have published pieces on Davos 2018 as previews of sorts. The Holmes Report posted athoughtful primer, while PRWeek published both a packing guide and a rationale for agency leader attendance. What I find particularly interesting is the direction of these publications’ takes this year. They have shifted from general commentary to a focus on what marketing services and PR agencies are actually doing at Davos. They are taking on an almost Cannes-esque tone; which, in my view, does our industry a disservice by reporting on agencies instead of covering the news.

PR and experiential firms (more so than digital and ad agencies) have always looked to Davos as a January revenue boon: Which of our clients should attend? How can we facilitate attendance and profit from it? However, with attendance from agency leaders increasing, Davos has become more than a new business-hunting trip. It is now fuel for PR and communications leaders – both within client organisations and within agencies – to be more effective providers of ‘organisational conscience’ and ‘responsible corporate behavioural guidance’. Through this lens, Davos both informs and educates PR and communications ‘elites’ on the world’s pressing agenda items.

There is, however, a fundamental issue here. Davos itself – and the vast majority of its attendees – focus more on the conversation and much less on the action. How much revenue do agencies derive from clients each year for supporting Davos’ activations? How much budget do brands put into amplifying executive participation? How enduring is both the substance and intent of the ‘unifying agendas of Davos’?  How real is the WEF’s rallying cry of ‘Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World’?

If our chosen profession of PR and communications is to fulfill the crucial role of influencing behaviour and providing a lens for corporate and brand responsibility/action, then I suggest we come together to drive change at the source.  

My modest proposals: 

1. Come Down the Mountain

Convening and/or participating in the dialogues of Davos has enormous (if, in certain quarters, debatable) value. Imagine, if you will, that a condition of entry into Davos is coming down the mountain. Why not make every non-NGO delegate (journalists included) prove that they have done one week (over the whole year) of hands-on, on-the-ground work to affect change in one of the focus areas taken on by the WEF/Davos. Instead of espousing policy recommendations and relaying second-hand narratives and stories around specific issues, the privileged delegate class could share first-hand experiences of what is happening ‘in the far-flung valleys below’ addressing hunger, healthcare access, energy security, climate change, cyber threats and the like. Don’t showcase carefully-crafted narratives and slickly-produced emotive videos. Take action. Report on it. Share it. Improve upon it.

2. Don’t Amplify, Activate

We should stop encouraging our clients and/or our organisations to amplify executive participation at Davos with media interviews, owned-media pushes and paid media activations. Instead of promoting attendance and roundtable participation to highlight thought leadership, put the corresponding PR and communications budgets into on-the-ground communication supporting change-enabling dialogue and sustainable engagement. Forget about making executives ‘look good’ and get onto fulfilling the noble intent of the gathering and the good intentions of its delegates.

3. Set Bold, Measurable Goals

Lastly, but probably most importantly, there are lots of previews of Davos and lots of round-ups. A lot of ‘what will be discussed’ and ‘what was discussed’. Some ‘what we have learned’. However, there is a complete void of ‘what we will do’, ‘how we will do it’ and ‘how we will measure it’. We need to put some exacting and measurable goals around this gathering. We, the PR pros and communicators, need to start to put an accountable framework around this annual gathering of elites. In the same vein as executives and political leaders measuring their employees and staff, we need to enable delegates to begin to hold themselves and the WEF accountable for the time and effort put into achieving the noble goal of ‘creating a shared future for a fractured

*With credit and respect to Jonathan Swift.

By: Alan VanderMolen

President, International, WE