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Views of the WEF from Around Our Global Network  

January 18, 2024

This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos centered on a theme close to every communicator’s heart: “Rebuilding Trust.” A theme that is particularly poignant after a year that saw the promise and perils of Artificial intelligence arise in the public’s consciousness. The start of the new year is underscored by continued geopolitical conflicts and the anticipation of 3 billion people globally preparing to vote for new leaders in 2024, including in the EU, U.S., UK, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Pakistan. By next year’s WEF, we can anticipate significant transformations in the geopolitical, business and political landscapes. 

With over 1,600 global leaders attending this year’s conference, including 800 CEOs and 60 heads of state, WEF continues to solidify its role as a key pacesetter for the global news agenda. As the 2024 WEF concludes today, our global communications experts, representing diverse geographies and industries, share their insights from the event and some lessons corporate communicators can take away for the year ahead. 

Geopolitical Concerns Dampen Economic Optimism at Davos

Michael Hartt, senior partner, head of International Affairs in London 

Given the focus on “economic” in its name, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting should have been a moment of quiet confidence for business leaders. Growth metrics are moving in the right direction in many leading economies. There is tangible progress in the fight against high inflation. We are seeing resilience and recovery. But that optimism is colliding with anxiety and uncertainty on geopolitics for many multinational companies.   

2024 will see eight of the 10 most populous countries going to the polls, with a year of contentious debates, polarised views and pressure on business to take a stance on difficult issues. At Davos, business leaders have recognised how the political landscape will pull them in conflicting directions simultaneously.   

Simultaneously, they must navigate immediate geopolitical conflicts and tensions on multiple fronts. The continued strain from the Russia-Ukraine war, growing impact of the Israel-Hamas war, latent U.S.-China tensions and emerging conflict between international allies and Houthi rebels are affecting strategic business decisions about growth and investment and day-to-day management of supply chains and trade routes.   

These pressures go beyond just adding complexity and confusion. As the atmosphere in Davos showed, they have the potential to disrupt economic progress achieved over the past year.  

Trump’s Possible Return to White House a Hot Topic

Michael Schmidt, partner, Public Affairs lead in Washington, D.C.

As leaders gathered in Davos this week, there was extensive chatter about someone who was not there and holds very different views than most of the leading voices at the World Economic Forum: former U.S. President Donald Trump. The gathering kicked off just as Trump won the first presidential primary. He is expected to have a relatively easy time winning the Republican nomination, which would set up a rematch of the 2020 race against President Joe Biden.    

The outcome of the November election holds enormous consequences for the U.S. and the global economy, American democracy, relations between world powers, taxes and regulation, progress on critical issues such as climate change and much more.    

U.S. executives in Davos are telling reporters they are not concerned about Trump returning to the White House. European policymakers do not share the same view given disagreements with Trump during his presidency.  

Whether or not Trump wins the election in November, business leaders would do well to consider that we are likely to see a period of heightened uncertainty in the U.S. that has already begun and will continue for the foreseeable future. The deepening political divide illustrated by the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has not ebbed and the presidential race is likely to rekindle the tensions seen domestically after the 2020 election.   

GCC’s Golden Age of Influence and Economic Growth

Ronak Thakkar, associate director, Middle East, UAE

Amidst the global discourse of Davos, the Middle East takes center stage, once again. Navigating a storm of challenges from a geopolitical point of view — war in Gaza, Red Sea tensions and GCC’s immense potential for progress dominated the newsrooms.  

Attendees from the UAE, KSA and Iraq had a strong showing at Davos this year. But one country getting much of the mileage from the region was the UAE, continuing to portray its strong foothold in influencing the conversations and even setting itself as the perfect example of growth. Thanks to its strong leadership, policies, approach to globalization and its efforts to be a hub for business, a hub for entrepreneurs, and new economies in the future.  

As the world’s first AI Minister, H.E. Omar Al Olama spearheaded UAE’s global tech collaboration efforts, highlighting investments in emerging sectors and new tools like generative AI for a future-proof economy. Across continents, a vision sparked. At Davos, Satya Nadella lauded the UAE’s pioneering AI tutor plan, while tech experts in Dubai at Intersec 2024 (running in parallel with WEF) dissected its potential for wider human impact.  

Davos Highlights Global Risks to Corporate Communications

Jane Gimber, director, Brussels  

As companies come together at Davos to discuss the multiple inflection points facing businesses, a key question being asked is how companies can communicate meaningfully on purpose and values amidst ongoing risks to global stability and political fragmentation.  

The threats associated with AI (see latest IMF report here), economic uncertainty, political instability caused by the numerous elections in 2024 and finally the green transformation to net zero emissions, all cause great societal uncertainty.  

In a world of confrontation and fragmentation, navigating these risks through authentic communication has never been more important to gain trust. This is especially relevant in this time where we see an increasing polarization of values, and accountability is high on the agenda in the EU, for example through stricter obligations for companies to report on their progress on sustainability standards.  

Davos provided an important platform to discuss these global risks in 2024 (see full risk assessment by the WEF here) but it also demonstrated the increased geopolitical tensions. For companies, it is therefore more important than ever to align their public affairs and corporate communications strategies and to communicate meaningfully on purpose and values, in order to navigate the new realities.  

Stephan Ester, associate director, Frankfurt  

The motto of this year’s WEF is “Rebuilding Trust”, and hardly anything could describe the current mood more aptly, as the ongoing erosion of trust in traditional institutions, whether public or private, is one of the greatest challenges to our society. When it comes to the reasons for this crisis of trust, a lack of or inadequate communication on the part of those in charge is often cited as a significant cause. If trust is to be regained, it can only happen through transparent and trustworthy communication. This task is made even more complex by the rapid spread of AI — another dominant theme at WEF this year. While AI certainly opens up a wide range of new possibilities, it also threatens to undermine trust as it has become more difficult than ever to verify the authenticity of news and messages.  

My top takeaway from Davos is therefore twofold: As communicators, we must enable our clients to engage in a trusting dialog with their stakeholders — to this end, we must keep our ears very close to discussions such as those held in Davos, where the central issues of our time are debated. At the same time, our task will increasingly be to show them ways in which they can (re)establish trust in a world in which it is more and more difficult to distinguish the authentic from the ‘fake news’.  

Healthcare was the Red Thread Through the Biggest Topics at Davos 

Christine Lydon, director, Healthcare, London  

Climate change, conflict in the Middle East and beyond, the global economy and the opportunities  (and risks) posed by AI have all taken centre stage at this year’s World Economic Forum. Healthcare hasn’t been forgotten though. Indeed, it’s arguably a red thread throughout most of the discussions. Case in point: Bill Gates’ observation that improving access to health care in developing countries will play a vital role in tackling climate change. There’s also been much talk about leveraging the potential of AI to revolutionise healthcare, particularly through multi-sectoral partnerships. 

Women’s health stood as a hot topic. In fact, one of the most notable reports launched at the meeting focused exclusively on the transformative impact of closing the women’s health gap. And with good reason: despite living longer, women spend 25% more of their lives in poor health than men. Eliminating the gap could cut this by almost two-thirds, while adding $1 trillion to the annual global economy by 2040, along with a 1.5% increase in per capita GDP. In response to the findings, the World Economic Forum has launched the Global Alliance for Women’s Health, an initiative that’s already been embraced by a host of key players from across the healthcare and pharmaceutical landscape, pledging $55 million so far. With the payoff from meaningful change so high, this is one to watch closely. 

Shifting Political Landscape Demands Proactive Measures from Business Leaders 

Yvonne Park, senior partner, APAC Public Affairs lead, and president, FleishmanHillard in Korea 

While the main agenda of this year’s Davos Forum focused on AI’s impact on the global economy and regulatory discussions, attention quickly shifted to the November U.S. presidential election and the unfolding power dynamics between the United States and China. This shift in emphasis can be attributed to the fact that this year coincided with global elections and anticipated geopolitical conflicts, as well as other non-economic factors poised to exert substantial influence on the world economy.  

It becomes imperative for global business leaders to adopt proactive measures to mitigate the risks posed by non-economic factors during these uncertain times.  

UK Political Parties Jockey for Position at the Start of an Election Year 

Liam McCloy, head of Public Affairs in London

In the UK, Conservative Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, and his opposite number, Labour’s Rachel Reeves, have both spent this week in Davos busy vying for the support of high-profile science, health and tech companies and investors with those sectors serving as a litmus test for the competitiveness of a country’s economy in a global marketplace. There are different pressures at play however. The Conservatives are currently in charge and need to maintain investor confidence during the tail end of a political cycle but with opinion polls showing a consistent Labour lead, the alpine interest in Reeves and her party Leader, Keir Starmer, has been palpable. In turn, investors are seeking clarity on what a Labour Government might mean for their interests and ensuring that there are no surprises should they secure victory in the UK general election. While those in Davos might not be directly responsible for determining the election outcome, standing tall on the world stage still matters to many people at home — something not lost on our politicians keen to secure a foothold on those slippy slopes in Switzerland this week. 

A Difficult but Essential Challenge Lies Ahead in Rebuilding Trust for Future Generations and their Prospects

Elliot Rylance, account director, Youth & Culture, London 

This year’s Davos theme, “Rebuilding Trust”, couldn’t be more relevant to the youth audiences of today. From “rage bait” content to AI filters and deepfakes, youth audiences are almost desensitised to consuming media that is created to provoke emotional responses and spread misinformation.  

 It’s not just trust in media that must be rebuilt for younger generations, it is also their trust in the political powers and governing bodies that have created an uncertain economic present and future for them. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “political instability is adding to economic insecurity,” and today we are seeing young people experience high levels of financial anxiety and low levels of job security.  

Another significant factor is the increasingly influential impact of AI. We have long spoken about youth audiences, particularly Gen Z, as digital natives who are comfortable navigating new, online landscapes to find or create opportunities for themselves. However, for all its exciting potential to unlock opportunities, there are big questions that remain unanswered about how AI will be regulated for future generations. While the EU made a positive step through the AI Act late last year, Emmanuel Macron urged the need for global regulation to ensure growth and, just as importantly, safety — echoed by speakers such as Microsoft President, Brad Smith and Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, who both called for enhanced efforts around AI governance.  

On-the-Ground Recap

Sheila Rose, partner, global Corporate Media Practice co-lead

Hello from Day 4 at Davos where it has warmed up steadily. As I walk along the Promenade, people do not even have hats and gloves on, which is a big change from when I arrived!   It’s been an optimistic Davos and I have heard a couple of CEOs make that same comment.  More optimistic than 12 months ago. There is a feeling that there has been positive momentum over the past year despite the geopolitical unrest.  

It’s been an overwhelmingly AI focused Davos. One speaker aptly said that last year, there were two storefronts with AI on the door along the Promenade. This year, it’s hard to find a company or organization that doesn’t have it in their signage or tagline. 

I’ve heard a lot of positive messaging around how AI is not scary (although it does have that reputation) and you don’t have to be a technologist to use it. Non-tech experts in far-flung places can learn the skills of the future and not be left behind. The sessions have been peppered with interesting AI use cases, ranging from AI in healthcare where people with health conditions can take care of themselves from their device, to young family members who have peace of mind with elderly loved ones in faraway places using a voice-enabled virtual caregiver.   There was a big focus in sessions regarding bias built into data.  Companies need to do a better job of investing in data sets that are testing for ethnicity and gender, and taking into account a much broader global scope of people. And of course, the importance of doing AI responsibly and using a trusted partner to help you implement it.