- Casey Aden-Wansbury, VP of policy and government affairs, Instacart
- Maneet Ahuja, editor at large, Forbes
- Laura Alfaro, professor, business, government and international economy unit, Harvard Business School
- Chris Foster, CEO, OPRG
- Katie Ioanilli, chief global impact and comms officer, Ralph Lauren
- Suzanne Kounkel, CMO, Deloitte
- Meggan Kring, VP of global comms, Walmart
- Ramiro Prudencio, partner, global director of communications, McKinsey & Company
- Donald Ricketts, chairman, EU office, FleishmanHillard
- Jan-Willem Scheijgrond, VP; global head, government and public affairs, Royal Philips Netherlands
- Daryl Simm, president and COO, Omnicom Group
- Ashok Sinha, SVP, head of corporate communications, Dow Jones
- Sally Susman, EVP, chief corporate affairs officer, Pfizer
Moderator: Steve Barrett, VP, editorial director, PRWeek
Between major elections, ongoing wars, climate change — just to name three factors — the world will look very different next January than it does right now.
Each year, the World Economic Forum brings together global leaders from the business, political and other arenas to discuss the issues that impact and shape society the most. And the major organizations who convene at Davos each January all have a huge role to play.
Inasmuch as communications leaders are essential figures within these organizations, those who hold such a role can have great influence.
How does that manifest itself? The leaders who joined this OPRG-hosted roundtable at the AlpenGold Hotel in Davos, conducted in partnership with PRWeek, discuss how the current geopolitical state of the world is impacting their jobs, companies, teams and stakeholders — and how leading with purpose can still be a major asset.
(Clockwise from top left) Aden-Wansbury, Ahuja, Foster and Alfaro
The ever-evolving comms role
Given all the uncertainty and rapid change, clients want “communications professionals to predict the future and help companies predict the future,” OPRG’s Chris Foster explains. “We're being stretched and challenged as a discipline to do more — offensive [and] defensive.”
“I genuinely don't believe the role of the communications leadership has changed,” FleishmanHillard’s Donald Ricketts opines. “[It’s] just that we're gradually waking up to what it was always meant to be. And it’s because the environment is demanding that of us.”
Across various stakeholders, “we've always been dot-connectors, but more so today,” notes Katie Ioanilli of Ralph Lauren. “Where is the audience? What is the context in which they're operating? How will they receive what you’re putting out? That reflection is influencing not just indication strategy, but real business decision-making.”
With all the polarization, political instability and humanitarian crises, “every organization is asking itself, ‘Should we say something?’ or its own employees are demanding that we say something,” observes McKinsey & Company’s Ramiro Prudencio.
“If you don't have more of a voice across audiences,” adds Deloitte’s Suzanne Kounkel, “the risk is that you appear inauthentic.”
Part of the challenge is that while “we need to have an opinion, it's often very difficult to put a nuance to it,” says Jan-Willem Scheijgrond of Royal Philips. “Internally you need to commit. There you need to explain more, but internal communications needs to be aligned with external communications.”
You must also acknowledge that employees play a vital role in comms today.
“If you are doing a nice job communicating with your associates internally,” suggests Walmart’s Meggan Kring, “that messaging carries on and you build brand ambassadors within your own organization.”
The prevailing political discord adds another layer to the challenge, as well as to what is expected of company leaders.
“It's harder to tell who can help solve [issues],” admits Instacart’s Casey Aden-Wansbury. “That's probably why you're seeing so much interest in people understanding from company leaders where they are and what their role might be in engaging or not.”
Of course, no conversation such as this could be complete without the media’s perspective. Forbes’ Maneet Ahuja supplies that.
“The chief communications officer is the person I connect with first and most frequently within the company,” she reports. “I always approach things much more collaboratively to help me get an accurate lay of the land.”
(Clockwise from top left) Ioanilli, Kounkel, Kring, Ricketts and Prudencio
Leading with purpose
With companies under so much pressure and scrutiny, some are giving additional thought to the priority placed on purpose-related matters. Each of the gathered leaders was adamant that these initiatives are more vital than ever.
Furthermore, brands — and their communicators — can and should play a unique role in advancing causes and ensuring that their organizations continue to lead with purpose — by example and in messaging.
In fact, the 50-plus elections taking place around the globe in 2024 present a unique opportunity for brands to speak up.
“It's getting a lot more polarized,” suggests Ricketts. “There is an expectation that if you're going to build trust with your stakeholders, you must stand for something of value. And that value needs to be something which speaks to and doesn’t alienate society at large.”
Customers and employees alike expect for brands to “have a point of view on every issue,” adds Foster. “They need a reason to believe in the company.”
The key to navigating the current landscape is through values.
“That is the safe space from which to operate,” asserts Pfizer’s Sally Susman. “If you speak out on every issue, you lose your agency, you lose your voice. The worst thing you can do is ping pong.”
It’s also crucial to “listen to all stakeholders and to never underestimate what you're going to glean from that,” continues Kring.
What Deloitte has found helpful is to “talk about why they're making decisions, not what the decision is,” notes Kounkel. “Then it gets into productive growth.”
For a media company, the most important currency is trust.
“The challenge is to figure out how to make sure that you're offering perspectives on both sides of whatever aisle you're talking about in whatever country or market,” shares Ashok Sinha of Dow Jones.
When in the midst of a controversy, it’s important to remember that “you don't have to engage on someone else's timetable,” counsels Susman. “It is a valuable thing to take a step back, make sure you have vetted this issue slowly, that you understand all the curves to it and then to speak forcefully with the courage of your convictions.”
(Clockwise from top left) Scheijgrond, Simm, Susman and Sinha
The changing workplace
Hybrid and remote working have clearly taken hold in the past couple of years. However, there does seem to be a turning tide where employees are being asked to spend more time in the office. Many of the assembled roundtable leaders believe that in the current climate of crises and division, it’s beneficial to collaborate and work together in person.
“My team needs to be in and among the people and even among the brands and in the newsroom,” notes Sinha. “It does not feel like we're able to get similar results if everybody is remote. I don't think we're establishing the same kind of trust, rapport.”
“The conversation in between the meetings is how we do our work,” Aden-Wansbury concurs. “There’s also the learning on the job and seeing and mentoring.”
Younger professionals particularly benefit from those in-person relations. They learn “how to interact with one another, how to build their skill sets, how to be professional, how to advance themselves, how to lead,” shares Omnicom Group’s Daryl Simm.
Harvard Business School's Laura Alfaro doubles down on the importance of in-person time as it relates to youth.
"If there is something that has to be done live, it's school,” she asserts. "As such, I need my teachers to go to work every day, so I go to work every day."
To encourage workers to return to the office, “it’s incumbent on us as team leaders in our organizations to make the time in office important and articulate we're better together,” concludes Prudencio. “Our research has shown that it's different for every organization, different for every culture, but that there is a threshold where you will see organizational cultural decline if you go purely remote.”