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Reflections from Davos: An Evolving Summit

February 2, 2023
By Mike Kelly

With the first full-scale, in-person World Economic Forum Annual Meeting since the pandemic now finished, and Davos season drawing to a close, it is clear the focus, ambitions, and content of the annual gathering are evolving at pace. Having attended on-site for the full week, as part of a client’s delegation, I can attest that nowhere was this more evident than in the composition and priorities of this year’s media attendees.

The relevance and influence of Davos have been subject to much debate across traditional and social media for several weeks now. The political press was keen to point out the no-shows from President Biden, President Xi, Prime Minister Modi, Prime Minister Sunak, and other major world leaders as a symbol of its fading influence.

In the UK, major news titles offset the perception of Davos as an elitist talking shop with the more pressing ‘real-world’ challenges facing our economy and households. But the idea that Davos’ influence is on the wane wasn’t reflected in the scale or mood on the ground, nor in the sheer volume of international media flying in and subsequent press coverage.

Indeed, as is typical, Davos dominated the political and business sections of most major outlets daily throughout the week, especially in the Western and Asian press. Predictions of the summit’s decline, at least with regards to press coverage and its ability to shape the news cycle, were premature. 

It is worth noting though, that, whilst Davos looks set to remain the date in the diary for the world’s business and political media, what they are covering, and how they are covering it, is clearly changing. Having spent much of my time in the on-site media centre, as well as working with roaming reporters throughout the week, a few themes stood out in particular:

1. Business supersedes politics

Senior politicians gave the event a miss and only one G7 leader, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, attended in-person. But this year saw a record number of C-suite executives and business leaders amass on the Alps. Of this year’s 2,700 participants, more than 1,600 were C-suite level within the private sector, and almost half of those were estimated to be CEOs. Notably, 119 of the world’s billionaires also joined the festivities.

This sharpened focus on the role of business, and connected topics of trade and technology, was mirrored in the media presence. Davos’ main street was dominated by pavilions and branding for CNBC, Reuters, and the Wall Street Journal, by far the most visible media displays. Meanwhile political and current affairs press from BBC, CNN and Politico opted for small teams of roaming reporters rather than large, fixed locations and delegations.

2. Skip the small talk

Contrary to Davos’ overall reputation, and experience in recent years, there was very little appetite for general networking and off-the-record briefings from attending press.

Both in our media engagement prior to the week itself, and in our conversations with journalists on-site, they were after two things and two things only. First, quick, sharp, ideally exclusive, headlines, and second, commentary or quotes from senior spokespeople for wider stories they were working on.

In previous gatherings I have attended, journalists were typically receptive to offers of background briefings or introductory coffees during the summit, whether with us as PRs or our clients. However, this year there was a clear sense of urgency to cover all breaking news, and general networking simply was less of a priority.

In addition, more journalists were largely fixed to their desks in the media centre, writing their articles and churning out fast social-native content. When they were able to roam, it was always with purpose – to track down on-the-record spokespeople or conduct interviews.

3. Opinions over announcements

One piece of direct feedback consistently given by journalists throughout our Davos campaigning was that, unless we have something hugely ground-breaking and globally relevant to announce, it wouldn’t be considered ‘news’ in the context of the summit.

As ever, journalists covering the gathering both on-site and remotely were inundated with Davos-related press releases and media alerts. Several contacts admitted they ‘wouldn’t even bother trying to read through their inboxes’.

Looking at some of the major headlines from Davos – the World Trade Organization’s economic forecasting, Ukraine’s campaign for funding and arms, China’s re-opening for business – it’s easy to understand why more myopic corporate or government announcements did not cut through.

Going forward, the recommended approach would be to rely less on press releases and written materials, and instead place greater emphasis on concise media pitches and insightful spokesperson commentary.

From a media standpoint, Davos was as hectic and crowded as ever, and our first-hand impression was that the summit isn’t going anywhere any time soon. However, if the focus continues to shift away from politics and government and more toward business, finance, trade and innovation, so too must communications leads evolve their strategic messaging, the ways they engage with media and the content they offer.

Whilst the Swiss summit may still be a hub for networking and schmoozing, it is clear journalists want communicators and spokespeople to ‘get to the point’. Whether that’s by providing information that’s brand new, strengthens their stories with truly impactful commentary, or finding other ways to stand out from the general news, less is definitely more, and substance matters.