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Lessons on Communications, from Davos



At one of the final sessions of this year’s World Economic Forum, Financial Times‘ chief economics commentator Martin Wolf characterized this year’s event as “the sigh-of-relief Davos.” Relief that Europe and the United States didn’t go off the numerous cliffs that loomed; relief that even with China’s moderating growth, its economy remains vibrant. He commended the crowd for not taking the sunny afternoon to ski the slopes as “we need to be vigilant to the risks of relapse.”

Over the course of my third Forum (read: long enough to come prepared with the right winter boots, but not quite long enough to be completely accustomed to the 96-hour marathon this event truly is), I was struck by how often communications was a central tenet of the discussions on advancing key global issues and business strategies. Here are some of the themes I took away from the various sessions.

The art of communicating is not a “soft” skill. During a panel titled, “Leading Through Adversity,” panelists including Fortune 50 CEOs agreed that the ability to navigate difficult times and establishing “new normals” requires extraordinary alignment among employees via strong internal communications. One CEO offered that part of his strategy for ensuring that his workforce is prepared for this and the many other challenges of an ever-changing global economy is to hire individuals with disciplines in filmmaking and creative arts so they bring their storytelling and content creation expertise to the fore.

Stories shape global agendas. Storytelling also was stressed in a session called “De-Risking Africa” with South African President Jacob Zuma and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. A good deal of conversation focused on the West’s tendency to overlook the advancement of Africa (the session’s title, “de-risk” being an example the leaders cited). In response, an African authority in the audience said, “Africa needs to own its problems, own the solutions and own the telling of our story.”

Communications rebuilds trust. “Restoring Europe’s Vibrancy” was the topic of a Thursday session I attended featuring the Prime Ministers for Sweden, The Netherlands and Denmark, as well as the President of the EU and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, George Osborne. The Taoiseach of Ireland (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny opened the session by talking to the importance of trust saying “people expect a sense of trust among leaders and with government, and too long at the European level this hasn’t happened.” Trust must be restored via transparency and clear communication. Clearly a message that resonated with me given the launch the day before of the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Professional “pitches” matter. During a Thursday panel hosted by the United Nations World Food Program (I serve on the Board of WFP USA), the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof moderated a discussion that focused on the urgency to address the needs of the world’s hungry to both save lives and advance economic development globally. Kristof said that issues like malnutrition deserve the benefit of “professional pitches.” A challenge to all of us in the public relations field to step up and provide our expertise to these vitally important causes.

Listening will take you global. At one session on Friday titled, “Leading Across Cultures,” a CEO said that the best way to achieve a truly global perspective is to ensure that all voices are heard. He accomplishes this himself by keeping his office moving for months at a time to different countries so that he truly gets to know and hear from his employees.

Communications matters more than ever in an era of risk. A session called “Enterprise Resilience” sparked a robust conversation about the traits an organization needs in order to survive challenges of all kinds. The importance of communication in a crisis was an area all could agree upon. There also was a thorough discussion about the importance of scenario planning, risk assessment and developing “coherence in strategy and how that strategy is communicated.” The frequent mention of communication and indeed appreciation for our work was indeed heartening (especially, after years of talking with organizations about the importance of planning as opposed to waiting for the inevitable crisis).

If CEOs and elected officials are to in fact turn around the distrust evidenced by our Trust Barometer findings, the hope is that more and more will think and act like many of the leaders I encountered last week.

Matthew Harrington is the global chief operating officer.

Image by Michael Wuertenberg/World Economic Forum.

  • Rebuilding trust, listening – all great points. Thank you Matthew and I hope you still found time to hit the slopes after it was over ….

    As you know we have entered a new phase where the world is experiencing a clear deficit of trust at all levels; between people, corporations and countries. The egoistic connection between us was so clear in the past: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. The situation has changed, but we have not adapted ourselves to the new conditions yet because we refuse to see this new stage for what it really is.

    We will continue to reveal the lack of the correct interactions until we realize that it’s necessary to create new relationships based on mutual trust and cooperation. This will only happen when we acknowledge the new interconnected system we are living in, and the good news is that “interconnected” was the big word at Davos this year.

    So if you think about it communications is everything – it is our lifeline. Natural systems communicate instinctively and this is a constant connection between all the various parts. We humans have a long way to go to reach that level of perfection. But in the meantime let’s keep in mind that without communications there would be no life at all.

  • Luis Fernando Martin

    Communication continues to consolidate as a crosscutting, not only organizations but the countries of the world, so we must manage this important asset professionally, from a directors and senior management.
    @luisfermartin (Bogotá, Colombia).

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