Davos 2016 takeaways for communicators: Issues of gender, income inequality

Income inequality and gender imbalance are underlying issues in nearly every topic discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The snowy slopes of Davos. (Image via the World Economic Forum's Facebook page).
The snowy slopes of Davos. (Image via the World Economic Forum's Facebook page).

The who’s who of the world’s elite has through Saturday to talk through some of the biggest global issues while they’re all in one place.

This year’s iteration of the World Economic Forum includes government leaders including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry and A-list celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kevin Spacey. And that’s not to mention corporate superstars such as Alibaba Group executive chairman Jack Ma, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and GM CEO Mary Barra.

Their focus is this year’s theme: "mastering the fourth industrial revolution."

Communications experts and Davos veterans say the forum remains important for PR pros and clients alike. Those who are invited to attend Davos have the chance to meet and discuss global issues with influencers from all over the world, face-to-face and in succession, notes Margery Kraus, executive chairman of APCO Worldwide. She notes it’s not only a chance for business leaders to "expand their horizons," but also to get a sense of who will be the trendsetters of tomorrow.

The World Economic Forum, known informally as Davos, can require Herculean feats of organization.

"Knowing what your objectives are going in [is critical]," says Carol Ballock, EVP and executive equity and engagement lead at Weber Shandwick. "I once flew to Davos next to an executive who had scheduled 25 meetings in less than the 25 hours he’d be on the ground."

Other communications professionals attend the forum specifically to help their clients, notes Kraus, who says many want to know how they can get involved with the biggest issues of the day. She explains the "fourth industrial revolution" is more than a high-level term; it poses questions for the future, like what artificial intelligence means for job creation and whether disruption should stoke fear or excitement.

In terms of media relations, the event also gives leaders the chance to speak with all kinds of media in one space, which can be "incredibly powerful," says Ryan Erenhouse, VP of thought leadership communications at MasterCard.

Brands can also use the event to go "beyond traditional media," notes Adam Snyder, chief digital officer at Kwittken, pointing to the prevalence of "live social events" like Twitter chats and video. For example, companies such as KPMG are "using online platforms not just to talk about what the company does but show what the company does," he adds.

"[Davos is] seeing the actual notion of brands being publishers coming to life," Snyder explains.

This year’s big issues
The 2016 World Economic Forum is taking place amid growing distrust between everyday people and society’s elites, as well as the emergence of technologies reshaping various industries. The Great Recession of the last decade lingers, as well.

"We’re in the midst of this tremendous transformation driven by technology and data and, frankly, opportunity to tap into those to make significant change," says Erenhouse. That means there’s a greater focus on security, both physical and in terms of information.

Davos’ theme is "about the importance of really helping people – wealth serving the world, not the world serving wealth," says Snyder, who adds that disruptors are now even coming from sectors such as government. An example is new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"What he’s looking to do for Canada in the long term [is] what business should be looking to do," says Snyder.

Charity Oxfam noted this week that income inequality is a global problem that has further tipped the balance in men’s favor, as well.

Yet income inequality is a complicated topic for communicators and brands to tackle, says Jamie Moeller, global MD of public affairs at Ogilvy Public Relations.

"It’s challenging because it’s such a big issue, but there are no easy solutions and there are no non-controversial solutions," he explains. It’s also a "long-term" issue that’s present in places from the US presidential election to around the world, Moeller adds.

Therefore companies that want to talk about the issue might do best to message on topics that are related to income inequality.

"Women want their paychecks to equal those of their male counterparts" notes Kraus. "That’s actionable – that companies can actually do something about."

Davos hasn’t always set the best example on gender equality.

"There’s been a steady drumbeat of news over the last five years about the lack of participation of women at Davos," says Ballock. "Progress continues to be made – it’s inching its way along [but] I think that’s one of the big shifts we do see."

She adds that the forum may be taking steps to close those gaps.

Ballock notes the number of women co-chairing events this year. It’s half, to be exact, according to event’s website – Barra, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, and Amira Yahyaoui, founder of Al Bawsala and Global Shaper. Meanwhile, Erenhouse says there’s an emphasis on "making sure there’s greater inclusion and greater equality of opportunity," as it applies to the LGBT community and equalizing men and women.

"It’s not that income inequality is an over-arching theme, there is an undercurrent in almost every part of it," Ballock explains, like the question of whether technology will either help or hinder the situation.

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