In Davos, PR firms are seen but not heard

In sharp contrast, the consultancies that are moving onto the turf of traditional holding companies are making their presence felt.

(Image via Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=234149)
(Image via Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=234149)

I first came to Davos in 2014 and quickly learned that the World Economic Forum is not just any conference; in fact, it’s arguably two separate events.

It is the foremost gathering of the global elite who are able to get inside the Congress Centre – not me. Meanwhile, as the WEF is taking place, the city of Davos transforms into the largest b-to-b trade show in the world.

Since my first trip, I’ve worked for numerous global PR firms. All have been enthralled by my experience in Davos and covet the opportunity to develop their own WEF case study they can use to show clients they are part of the global dialogue and a player in shaping what takes place on the mountaintop. However, while I’ve been in a number of conversations with senior leaders of each of these firms, none seemed able to create a firm-owned program or put in place anything that resembles something that they would develop for a client. 

PR firms thrive on their ability to tell stories, access influencers, earn media, and conduct research and polling. The concentration of important people in Davos provides agencies a unique platform for simultaneous self-promotion and contribution. Regardless, none with the exception of one firm (Edelman), does anything to seize the opportunity provided. Now, after spending the week in Davos for the fourth time, I’m even more convinced PR firms are missing out on a major opportunity.

A few weeks ago, an article in PRWeek spoke about how consulting firms such as Accenture and Deloitte are coming for the large holding companies such as Publics Groupe and Interpublic Group. This was never more evident than in Davos. Professional services dominate the landscape and use the tools that have made PR firms successful.

Accenture developed the most comprehensive presence in Davos. Rather than wait for news to happen or issues to come into the WEF dialogue, the company created them. It built a studio in the main hotel, and over the course of the week, organized a series of panels that brought together key influencers to discuss vital issues. Accenture then used its social media presence to promote its activity and engage with the audience in Davos. When combined with several interviews and appearances by its executives, the company looked more like a media property than a technology firm.

KPMG provided the unofficial backbone of the event’s digital conversation through WEFLive.com. The site tracks conversation in real-time and shows who’s leading on topics, and how it’s stratifying around the globe. Users can visit the site, manipulate the data for themselves, and export custom stories and graphics—all with the company’s name. When combined with live updates, the engagement of important attendees, and a regular cadence of media activity, it makes one think KPMG is an integrated communications agency.

Ernst & Young arguably owned the Davos conversation before the event and has played a leading role during the WEF. The company deployed a series of polls across its global Twitter presence and gained insight into what its audience was interested in. It then used this information to create a series of communications that spanned messages from its c-suite in other live media and social content. The company also released original studies that focused key WEF issues.

Each of these companies and others are demonstrating their value by leading a dialogue and ultimately serving as a source of information for their audience through storytelling. They are using the tools that drive the communications industry and keep agencies in business. Yet in Davos, few of the leaders of the PR sector are using this event as a means to promote their capabilities. Instead they’re seen at events and participating in panels. This builds the eminence of their leadership but does little to promote the firm. As the industry transforms and new competition arises, I look forward to seeing how PR firms react and what they do to reinforce their brands.

Adam Snyder is managing partner of ALS Impact. Follow him on Twitter @SnyderStrategy.

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