Dispatch from Dalian: Highlights from the World Economic Forum Meeting in China

Greetings from a rainy and muggy Dalian, in the far southeastern corner of the far northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning, venue of the World Economic Forum’s “summer Davos,” or as it’s officially known, the Annual Meeting of the New Champions.

While technically a global meeting drawing leaders from business, government and civil society, the meeting has a distinctly Asian tone, and the atmosphere reflects the generally buoyant mood of the Chinese juggernaut economy. You don’t have to be an economist to see that there is something historic happening in this part of the world. All by itself, the Manhattan-like skyline of this sub-provincial city many have never heard of tells its own remarkable story.

As is now customary with these conferences, we thought it would be worthwhile to share some observations from the proceedings. And when we say “we,” we mean “I,” as I’m all by myself from Ketchum on the Omnicom Group delegation. Consequently, I’m the only one filing dispatches, and when I say “dispatches,” I mean “dispatch,” as this is this the only one I will be able to write before going home.

When discussing our involvement with the World Economic Forum, we often reference our commitment to social responsibility and corporate citizenship, as the Forum has helped shape our thinking and commitment in this area, and has afforded many opportunities to contribute to global problem solving. These include Rob Flaherty’s ongoing contributions to Forum-led initiatives in anti-corruption and employee wellness, Gustavo Averbuj’s leadership in non-communicable disease awareness, and my own modest efforts in global health, gender parity and media integration. And, of course, our lending of Chicago’s Abby Berg-Hammond to the Forum’s Geneva-based media team.

In this dispatch, I thought it would be interesting to frame a few highlights from the meeting in the context of other benefits from our partnership with the Forum, namely these: client service, corporate development, new business, and new thinking in communication. And when I say “interesting,” I probably mean “interesting to me.”

Let’s start with client service. Active participation in the Forum affords unique insight into the workings of its extraordinary connections to and with global thought leaders, and I had an opportunity to see our advice enacted in real time with a panel discussion on the “future of mobility” featuring Andy Miller, CEO of Polycom, a client of Ketchum sister agency Access Communications. I’m sure Andy would be articulate and persuasive on his own, but he stole the show with clear, compelling narrative on the power of video communications and Polycom’s unique technologies to provide it on any device.

I also had a chance to learn from other companies about their experiences in diversifying their management teams — a timely lesson in corporate development. I was asked to help lead a workshop on gender parity, a Forum initiative to bring more women into executive roles, and while the proceedings were private — i.e., no blogging or tweeting afterward — I can share a few general takeaways.

First, as a global company, Ketchum is pretty much in the middle of the pack in terms of gender parity. Better than many, but with ground yet to cover.

Second, we might want to look at gender parity across the whole spectrum of our workforce, not just in senior levels. We are disproportionately female in our entry-level and early-stage positions, and an effort to balance this over time might help enrich our service proposition. At mid-level, we’re more innovative than many global companies at encouraging new mothers to return to work, although work-life balance concerns remain a challenge for just about all businesses. And at senior levels, our parity in management positions is laudable compared to other companies. But like most, we remain disproportionately male at the very top.
And third, there are lots of great lessons to learn from other organizations. Mentoring plans, transparent career tracking and 360-degree feedback systems are all ingredients for better gender parity and, gratifyingly, all in place in most parts of our business. I hope we’ll continue to learn more and adopt new thinking in this important area of our development as a business.

New business. We’re not too shy about mentioning our Forum relationship to prospects, but it often pays off substantively, too. Earlier this week, we pitched a global food production company looking for insight on issues associated with food security. And public comments from industry and NGO leaders at a session here on food poverty helped us validate our advice to change their language and stance, and to demonstrate our willingness and capacity to scour the globe — literally — for insight and perspective. 

Finally, the World Economic Forum occasionally focuses on topics of direct relevance to us as communicators, and one such session examined the lessons learned in crisis communications from the dual disasters in Japan. The panel featured Noriyuki Shikata, main international spokesman for the Japanese government, Nik Gowing from the BBC, and Omnicom’s Serge Dumont, chairman of the Asia Pacific region.

This session is worth reprising in fuller detail than space here allows, but the essential lesson can be boiled down to this: In the old days (just a few years ago), brands, institutions and companies saw crises as events that unfolded over days and weeks. Now, thanks to social media, they unfold over minutes and hours. And very few such organizations are remotely capable of dealing with this, even if they are aware of the risks of the new “tyranny of real time” as the BBC’s Nik Gowing put it.

Implications for us? We’re all crisis managers now, or at least we all need to be vigilant about issues that can threaten our clients in a flash.

That’s about it. My little fingers ache from typing on my phone, and the three-hour flight to Hong Kong boards shortly followed by an 11-hour flight to London.

I welcome any comments you may have.