Deciphering Davos and London’s Reaction

This year’s Davos gathering was somewhat controversial. Depending on who you ask, it was either a rare opportunity for business and political elites to discuss the world’s most pressing problems, or a luxury break for movers and shakers to talk inequality in “champagne bars and cigar lounges”, to quote Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. As the Oxfam report revealed that the 85 richest people control the same amount of wealth as poorest half of the world,  some opined the history was about to repeat itself. In a sense that the Davos crowd this year was not too far from the European leaders who, a century ago, “sleepwalked into 1914… watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

Despite this scepticism, this year’s Davos gathering was highly anticipated with Iran’s attendance and the high profile debate around the World Food Programme. Pope Francis urged the Davos elite to serve humanity with wealth. Goldie Hawn led a mindfulness meditation session. Davos seems to have become touchier and feelier. With only 15% of female delegates at Davos (down from 17% last year), gender inequality was firmly on the agenda as well.  While some talking about quotas for women on boards, female business leaders themselves, like Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, focused on changing societal and personal attitudes if women were to enjoy more successful careers.

Davos

Davos

Having provided pro-bono support to the World Economic Forum for eight years, Ketchum has been an active participant at its annual meeting in Davos during that time. As part of our involvement in WEF, the Ketchum London team hosted a Davos 2014 dinner discussion on January 29 to decipher some of the many conversations and insights that came out of the week, to share learning’s as they are relevant for UK plc. It was hard avoiding commentary on David Cameron’s suggestion that “EU needs more of the conservative common sense,” as well as the impact of technology on employment, distribution of wealth and the widening income gap.

During the dinner conversation, carefully guided by Ketchum’s David Gallagher (Partner and CEO Ketchum Europe), Denise Kaufmann (Partner and CEO Ketchum London) and moderated by Jo-ann Robertson (Partner and MD Corporate and PA Ketchum London) and steered along by Dafydd Rees (Head of Business Unit, Sky News) and Joel Hills (Business Presenter, Sky News), the following insights and observations emerged:

1. Every year UK politicians turn up at the WEF annual meeting with an apparent burning desire to hi-jack the news agenda. Whether it’s the Prime Minister David Cameron or the Chancellor George Osborne, they never miss an opportunity to use the ‘Davos platform’ to amplify domestic announcements, which have absolutely no relevance to the theme of the alpine gathering. Attendees have had to endure Britain’s political leaders talking about the role that fracking can play in boosting the UK economy, to the apparent growing faith businesses are demonstrating in Britain by ‘reshoring’ their operations back from the Far East. But these aren’t two isolated examples, and they’re no longer the preserve of the Brits with other high profile attendees seemingly unable to resist the opportunity either, with culprits including Canadian-born Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney divulging minutes from the most recent Monetary Policy Committee meeting of the Bank’s intention to maintain interest rates at the existing level, followed by the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde declaring war on deflation and the European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi talking up the Eurozone recovery. All interesting points for discussion, but none of them are new announcements and all recycled for the benefit of the media scrum attending Davos who prey on all and every scrap of information they are given.

2. It’s difficult to ignore the incongruity of a get-together of the world’s financial, business and political elite discussing global poverty and inequality when every speech or interview is set against a backdrop of snow covered mountains in an exclusive Swiss alpine ski resort. WEF does itself a disservice hosting its annual meeting at Davos. Wouldn’t it better to reflect the wholly laudable ambitions and integrity of WEF if the annual meeting was held in a location which is directly relevant to the themes being discussed? Why not hold it in one of the major growing economies of South East Asia or Latin America?

3. The agenda at Davos is memorable, often for what not’s included as much as what is up for discussion and debate. While ‘happiness’ and ‘gender gap’ were central themes of discussion this year, ‘climate change’ and ‘food security’ failed to make the agenda. It can be difficult not to be judgemental and see the themes of discussion as ‘developed’ world themes. Over the last twelve months the countries around the globe have been inflicted by intense natural disasters – Hurricane Sandy in the United States, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and massive flooding across Northern Europe. But climate change has fallen prey to a section of the media with a preference for questioning the evidence and less on covering the growing and sustained impact of natural disasters

4. The demographic make-up of attendees at Davos doesn’t lend itself really identifying a broad church of solutions. The ‘great and the good’ of industry and politics attend but where’s the trade union representation? Event panels are rarely balanced and there was repeated criticism that the fringe forums need to be much more punchy and focused.

Davos may not be agenda setting and it may not be the place to hear new policy announcements. The real important work undertaken by WEF takes place throughout the calendar year and all around the globe, but even if Davos is a single date in the year, it is a date when the world’s elite come together, pause, take a breath and look around….and then for four short days discuss and debate issues beyond their day-to-day interests and try and find solutions to the big challenges facing the world.

It’s not perfect, it’s not a panacea, but it’s Davos and until WEF or another similar organisation has the ability to bring the global elite together at another location, a trip to the Swiss Alps every January will remain an appointment that few will turn down if they have the opportunity to attend!

Photo via Where to Ski.

Rupert Lewis is a Practice Director in the Corporate & Public Affairs Practice at Ketchum Pleon in London. He specialises in public affairs and reputation management and has worked with clients in most sectors including financial services, infrastructure, manufacturing, telecoms and gaming. When he’s not talking politics, he’s supporting Fulham FC or winning (mainly!) money on racetracks. Follow him @rupertlewis