Image: World Economic Forum/Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary
- Although the Davos summit didn’t produce many headlines this year, a good understanding of the issues discussed at the summit may help PR and comms professionals gauge a measure of where global conversations are headed in near future.
- Our analysis found that the Davos media debate focused on the war in Ukraine, sustainability and the global economy, while Pfizer managed to become the most influential company in the debate by announcing an ESG initiative related to health equity.
- Some of our top takeaways for PR and comms are that the call for business activism now extends to geopolitics, while nature is fast becoming a cornerstone of the global sustainability agenda.
The highlight of the last meeting of the international elite in Davos was a confrontation between Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump. It was January 2020 and scant attention was being paid to news of a new virus recently detected in China. Most of those who made the trek to the Swiss alpine resort were too busy virtue-signalling their deep worry about inequality and the climate crisis.
A lot has happened since then. What was assumed to be a little local problem in Wuhan turned out to be the start of a global emergency. The January 2021 Davos was a virtual affair, and the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum (WEF) pencilled in for January 2022 was postponed because of the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
According to many commentators, last week’s WEF gathering had a different feel, and not just because many of its slopes were green rather than white. Attendance was down on pre-pandemic levels, and there were no A-listers among the headliners. Neither of the 2020 climate emergency protagonists was around: Trump is out of office and Thunberg gave Davos a miss. Joe Biden was not on the guest list, nor was Boris Johnson, French president Emmanuel Macron or Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi.
For some analysts, the reticence was understandable: chattering with billionaires when there is a cost-of-living crisis raging is not the greatest look. For others, there was an alternative narrative. Davos has always been dedicated to globalisation and has long been keen on using the forum to tackle common problems such as climate change and inequality. However, a combination of pandemic and Putin has accelerated an already existing trend towards deglobalisation and that process – rather than the protesters outside the ring of steel – poses the biggest threat to the future of Davos. There are a growing number of media voices saying the meeting had ceased to be relevant.
Still, nearly 2,500 people made the guest list for the 2022 event. Some notable past attendees, including JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, BlackRock’s Larry Fink and Facebook parent Meta’s Sheryl Sandberg, didn’t make the trek. The business leaders who did make it raised concerns about macroeconomic and geopolitical threats to the global economy, including skyrocketing inflation, supply-chain disruptions, and the Russia-Ukraine war.
Although the Davos summit didn’t produce that many headlines, a good understanding of the issues discussed at the summit may help PR and comms professionals gauge a measure of where global conversations are headed in near future.
Geopolitics, sustainability and recession
To see how the discussion around Davos unfolded, we analysed 1,096 English-language articles published between April – May 2022 in a set of top mass media outlets like Reuters, the New York Times, Forbes and the Guardian.
We found that the War in Ukraine was the most widely discussed topic:
Most media outlets remarked that the war cast a pall over the event. There were numerous calls throughout the conference, including from WEF President Klaus Schwab, for a Marshall Plan to help rebuild Ukraine. (The Marshall Plan was a U.S. program that helped rebuild Europe in the wake of World War II.). But in a panel at Davos, some U.S. legislators also made clear that while they continue to be unified in their defence of Ukraine, future support should come with more transparency in how the money the U.S. is sending Ukraine is being spent.
Reporters noted that solidarity with Ukraine was all-encompassing. In previous years, one of the hottest tickets at Davos was an invite to the champagne and caviar bashes thrown at the Russia House on the Promenade. This year, no Russians were invited and the party premises became the “Russia War Crimes House”, where Ukraine displayed evidence of atrocities committed since the start of the invasion.
But solidarity with Ukraine comes at a cost, as was clear from many of the reports. It was taken as read that the war would be bad for the global economy, with the only dispute about exactly how bad. Estimates ranged all the way from a mild dose of stagflation through to Soros’s prediction of a depression.
Meanwhile, as many as a third of the panel discussions on the main stage were related to Sustainability. Few chief executive officers got away with an interview that does not touch upon ESG — the investing approach that takes into account environmental, social and governance factors. According to some journalists, even wine served at a party outside the main conference area came with the host’s pitch for his company’s sustainability app.
A major point of discussion was that many of the crises the world faces today, including food shortages, are made worse because of rising global temperatures. “The crisis is here,” said John Kerry, the US’s climate envoy. “People can see what the impacts are all around the world.” Some reporters mentioned that just last month, South Asia has suffered from killer heat waves and floods, wildfires burned in the US West and extreme temperatures have hit the Middle East and southern Europe. Scientists are now able to quantify the changing climate’s role within days or weeks of some extreme weather events.
Apart from ESG, nearly every conversation with chief executives was dominated by the Global economy – how to handle rising interest rates, inflation and supply chain shocks, with the latter two having been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Among the major threats to economic growth, IMF First Deputy Managing Director Gita Gopinath told Reuters that the conflict in Ukraine could escalate, adding: “You could have sanctions and counter-sanctions.” IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said the war, tighter financial conditions and price shocks – for food in particular – have clearly “darkened” the outlook in the month since the IMF cut its global growth outlook, though she is not yet expecting a recession.
While COVID-19 has not yet officially been declared over, this year’s WEF summit already analysed the black box data from the pandemic to find ways to future-proof the world against another global health crisis, making Healthcare a major topic in the conversation. Vaccines have enabled a large part of the world to reopen in recent months, but how best to manufacture, roll out and fairly distribute them as well as COVID-19 treatments have caused soul-searching among the Davos panelists.
A key message from the conference was that providing equitable vaccine access is a goal that is far from being achieved, with many middle- to low-income countries lacking vital vaccine supplies. In Africa, for example, the rate of vaccination was 35.92 per 100 people by 2022, according to Statista, compared to 195.8 per 100 in the European Union. The question of what more pharmaceutical companies should be doing to improve this became a hot topic at this year’s WEF.
Technological innovation also underpinned many Davos reports, whether it was the internet becoming a bit ‘less flat’ or the leapfrogging opportunity for the global south. Many WEF participants also focused on the metaverse, where much of the discussion revolved around avoiding the mistakes the tech industry made on social media, including the unintended consequences of predicting user behavior to target content and advertising.
The WEF, meanwhile, built its own metaverse, called The Global Collaboration Village, in collaboration with Microsoft and Accenture. It promised to “bring together key global stakeholders—international organizations, governments, partner companies and civil society organizations—to imagine alternative futures, explore ideas in an immersive way and envision what the future world could be.”
Ukrainian officials and climate leaders led the discussion
We found that the officials driving much of the discussion were Ukrainian officials and climate leaders. However, Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, emerged as the most influential spokesperson in terms of media influence score (calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets):
Klaus Schwab, who organised the first Davos in 1971, put a brave face on the no-shows by the global bigwigs. He was cited as saying that the fact that nearly 2,500 leaders from politics, business civil society and media come together in person demonstrates the need for a trusted, informal and action-oriented global platform to confront the issues in a crisis-driven world.
Schwab’s hope was that this year’s low-key event will be merely a temporary setback and that Davos will be back to usual next January. In this regard, some journalists noted that he might be right: chief executives of big multinational companies could be less willing to jet off to Switzerland in the spring than they are in the winter, especially given the stringent health requirements for attending the meeting. As the ongoing lockdowns in China testify, Covid-19 has not been eliminated.
President Joe Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry came second in terms of influence as he appeared alongside Bill Gates and leaders at Microsoft, Salesforce and Google. In interviews, he highlighted the companies he says are “taking the lead in many places.” The moves, a not-so-subtle contrast to the slow pace of some government action, represent “a gigantic shift,” Kerry said, adding that these actions give key stakeholders the tools to tackle “the hard to do things” in the climate fight.
More than 50 major corporations have signed on to what Kerry and other leaders have dubbed the “First Movers Coalition.” The direct goal is targeting “hard to abate” sectors accounting for 30% of global emissions: aluminum, aviation, chemicals, concrete, shipping, steel, and trucking.
Kerry comments came as government actions on climate change have slowed or stalled. In the U.S., the Biden administration has wrapped up its ambitious climate agenda in the still-stuck Build Back Better Plan. White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, Kerry’s domestic counterpart, told Yahoo Finance recently that U.S. government action is still possible this year but “we need Congress to join in.”
Many media headlines focused on Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, who delivered a special address on the opening morning at Davos 2022, setting the agenda for leaders to come together to help his country. President Zelenskyy referenced the Davos 2022 Annual Meeting’s theme – History at a Turning Point – citing the unprecedented nature of the Russian Federation’s “brute force”, which seeks “nothing but the subjugation of those it seeks to subdue”.
Zelenskyy also called for “maximum” sanctions and a “complete withdrawal from the Russian market”, listing just some of the sanctions he believes should be imposed upon Russia for its crimes against Ukraine and its people. He warned that “if the values of freedom are lost – everyone loses”.
Many Ukraine-focused media reports noted that the global farming community cannot replace the wheat that normally comes from the fields of both Russia and Ukraine. Heavy importers like Egypt and Tunisia may struggle to put food on the table. In this regard, David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, was quoted as saying that hundreds of millions of people were “marching to starvation”.
While about 50 heads of state or government were slated to come, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who spoke in Davos for the first time as Germany’s chancellor, was the only head of state from a G7 country to physically appear at this year’s conference. He took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, saying that Putin wants a return to a world order in which might dictates what is right — in which freedom, determination and sovereignty are not for everyone.
The most influential EU official was European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, who was cited as saying the “economies of the future” will no longer rely on oil and coal. She explained that the green and digital transitions will increase the need for materials like lithium and silicon metal required for batteries, chips, electric vehicles or wind turbines, adding that “we rely on a handful of producers in the world. So, we must avoid falling into the same trap as with oil and gas.”
Among the handful of Chinese officials who were allowed to leave the country’s strict Covid lockdown was its climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua. He reaffirmed the world’s largest emitter’s promise to do what’s needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, despite China doubling down on coal to combat the energy crisis.
The changing expectations for business leaders
Bill Gates, a Davos regular, was the most influential spokesperson from the corporate world:
Bill Gates was a member of a panel on “Preparing for the Next Pandemic”, speaking about the next generation of pandemic vaccines that would potentially scale up for an entire population and develop a new vaccine within “a month,” and those vaccines would be “infection blocking and long duration.”
He was joined by Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and the presidents of the African nations Rwanda and Malawi. Some reporters noted that their worry wasn’t developing a vaccine – they were frustrated with what they see as the world’s growing indifference to the infection.
The Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist pointed out that budgets for projects such as GAVI, the vaccine alliance, are “incredibly stretched” despite generous government funding. “The Ukrainian situation is stretching the world’s resources, and we see that both in terms of resources for health, resources for food, availability of fertilizer,” Gates added. “The tragedy of the war goes far beyond the battlefield.”
Gates also owed its influence on the discussion to his participation in another panel focused on sustainability, alongside U.S. climate envoy John Kerry was joined by Bill Gates, Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff, Google Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat and several others. Gates was cited as saying that “so many green products carry a price premium” compared with established fossil fuel technologies and that “the way you get rid of that is scale up the production.”
Meanwhile, Microsoft’s current Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella participated in a wide-ranging talk with Klaus Schwab on the changing expectations for leaders, and how it has adapted to shifts such as COVID and hybrid work. He also explained how technology businesses can help protect people and how it has responded to challenges such as the Ukraine conflict.
George Soros was the second most influential corporate leader, as he prompted his most apocalyptic warning yet: that the Ukraine invasion may have been the beginning of the third world war and our civilisation may not survive it. That statement made many headlines and was covered with a rather alarmist tone by many journalists, with some noting that Soros is generally known for making accurate predictions.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff attracted media attention for saying that he is ready for “a new environmental capitalism”, adding that every company here at the Forum must be net-zero and fully renewable: “We have no choice. We must create a net-zero world.”
Another influential exec within the Sustainability topic was Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Hollub, who said that oil and gas industries had a central role to play in the transition to renewable energy and the focus should be on making fossil fuels cleaner by reducing emissions. Hollub remarked that Occidental had invested heavily in wind and solar energy and planned to build the world’s largest direct air capture facility in the Permian Basin, spanning parts of Texas and New Mexico.
In a panel talk on the metaverse that was covered by many tech publications, Facebook parent Meta’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, said he envisioned the need for standards and governance. Meta is betting big on the metaverse as the next big source of the company’s growth. Cox explained that there “will probably be something like a ratings system” for movies, music and other content in the metaverse so parents and young people “can have some sense of what the rules are in the environment that they’re going to walk into.”
The most influential financial services executive was Citigroup’s boss Jane Fraser, who sounded the alarm about inflation as early as last year. Asked whether she was near-certain there would be a recession in Europe, she simply said: “Yes”, adding: “Europe is right in the middle of the storms from supply chains, from the energy crisis, and obviously just the proximity to some of the atrocities that are occurring in Ukraine.”
But some journalists noted that Davos’s elite were not entirely full of doom and gloom before they left for their evening champagne receptions. David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-chairman of US private equity giant the Carlyle Group, repeatedly replaced the word recession with ‘banana’ – echoing a former adviser to President Carter who eschewed the ‘R-word’ in an effort not to alarm the electorate. There would probably not be a ‘banana’, he argued, saying both the Covid crash and the financial crisis of 2008 had been more severe. If there was, he said, it would likely be mild.
Pfizer emerged as the most influential company with ESG initiative
We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the most significant impact on the media discussion around Davos in our research sample.
We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.
We found that Pfizer the most influential companies in the debate:
Pfizer made many headlines as it used Davos to announce it is to supply all its current and future patent-protected medicines and vaccines on a not-for-profit basis to 45 lower-income countries and is talking to other big drugmakers about similar steps.
Announcing an “accord for a healthier world”, the New York-based pharma firm pledged to provide all its products that are available in the US and Europe on a cost basis to 1.2 billion people in all 27 low-income countries such as Afghanistan and Ethiopia, plus 18 lower-middle-income countries including Ghana.
Pfizer has previously been accused of “pandemic profiteering” over the huge profits it has generated from coronavirus-related medicines over the past two years. It made almost $15bn in sales in only three months from the Covid-19 vaccine it developed with Germany’s BioNTech and its new Covid pill for people who are at high risk of severe disease.
Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive, said that unfortunately, there exists a tremendous health equity gap in our world that determines which of us can use these innovations and which of us cannot. Appearing alongside Bourla was Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, who noted that rapid and affordable access to the most advanced medicines and vaccines is the cornerstone of global health equity.
Meanwhile, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce gained media visibility as they committed to purchasing $500 million worth of carbon removal by 2030, which will help to jumpstart the nascent carbon removal industry by creating a guaranteed market for the technology.
It was the latest move by Big Tech to propel the emerging technology forward while painting themselves as global leaders when it comes to taking action on climate change. Regardless, some commentators remarked that these companies have a lot of work left to do to deal with their own emissions and carbon dioxide removal (CDR) isn’t the solution for Big Tech’s own pollution. To be sure, the climate crisis has gotten so bad that the United Nations’ leading climate experts acknowledge that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels won’t be enough anymore.
Microsoft and Accenture earned additional media visibility as they assisted the WEF with building its own metaverse, called The Global Collaboration Village. The launch of this new platform was perceived to be a testament to the growing importance of the metaverse and a confirmation that business leaders and policymakers view this technology as an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on a global level.
According to Satya Nadella, the collaboration with Accenture and the continued growth of the metaverse aided by multi-billion-dollar investments by tech giants will take hybrid work to another level, which should open many new doors for the growth of a few business sectors, including freelancing solutions providers and social media companies.
Other technology companies featured in the debate were Indian tech giants Infosys, Wipro and HCL Technologies which set up their bases close to those of Google, Meta and Intel. According to many reports, bright colours and bold logos proudly signalled where India has set up base on the main street in Davos this year, as the country trumpets its pro-business and foreign investment drive.
In the meantime, Occidental Petroleum was mentioned as it became part of a group of 18 organisations connected to the oil and gas industry which agreed to take collective action on cyber resilience. The announcement followed the high-profile cyberattacks on Colonial Pipeline in May 2021 and the attacks on the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp oil hub facilities in February. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only ramped up those concerns amid fears a retaliatory cyberattack would target key energy supplies in connection to sanctions related to the war.
Key takeaways for PR and comms
Based on our analysis, here are a few points PR and comms pros could take away from this year’s Davos:
- Call for business activism now extends to geopolitics. Over the past two years, business leaders have encountered an endless succession of disruptive events. Each of these events has jolted business leaders into a new realty — a reality requiring action of growing complexity and consequence. As we saw from our analysis, geopolitical tensions have now thrown into the background other business imperatives like sustainability and diversity and inclusion. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: The Geopolitical Business found that when it comes to condemning or punishing a country’s bad behavior, inaction by business is not an option. This is certainly true when it comes to Russia. Nearly half of those surveyed (47 percent) said they have bought or boycotted a brand or company based on their response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, the study showed a precipitous drop in employee advocacy and loyalty when a company’s response to the Ukraine crisis failed to meet expectations. And employees made those expectations clear — they are less likely to be loyal (by 24 points) and less likely to be an employer advocate (by 26 points) — if their employer’s response doesn’t meet their standard.
- Nature is fast becoming a cornerstone of the global sustainability agenda. At Davos, biodiversity and nature loss yet again was a topic of passionate discussion, having received global attention at COP26. A nature-based urban transformation was a particularly important topic, as urban planning was highlighted as among the most significant challenges as cities adapt to the fallout from nature loss. Bringing nature-based solutions to cities across a variety of applications was discussed as the critical intervention. Growing awareness of these problems led an increasing number of scientists to call for governments to enact policies and nature-based solutions to address both issues. Meanwhile, environmental activists urged countries to protect entire ecosystems rather than iconic locations or species, claiming that policymakers tended to see climate change and biodiversity loss as separate issues, which resulted in policy responses being siloed. Read our biodiversity analysis for more insights.
- Companies should strengthen their PR strategies to deal with the recession. Recession fears are here to stay. From Wall Street analysts to economists, many industry leaders expect a global recession sooner rather than later, and some analysts have gone on to say the U.S. economy will enter a recession by the end of this year. At the Davos summit, this possibility was discussed in detail, and many thought leaders agreed that a recession is very likely given both macroeconomic and geopolitical pressures we are seeing today cannot be addressed easily. That said, there could be no bigger mistake than cutting PR during a crisis. Those who think past the crisis and want to sustain their long-term success will continue communications and connections with current and potential customers and key audiences. Because when so many others aren’t surviving the storm, it lets the public know that you are still standing, communicating and being active, and that you will still be there when things get better. PR is one of the most budget-conscious, effective and resourceful ways to keep your name out there during a recession. The third-party endorsement that PR creates is a voice that carries through and resonates with audiences long after the depression has passed.
- Health equity will become a hot topic for the healthcare sector. We saw how Pfizer managed to gain its prominence in the Davos debate by focusing on health equity. This comes at a time when many media stories have noted that COVID-19 is disproportionally affecting the poor, minorities and a broad range of vulnerable populations due to its inequitable spread in areas of dense population, high prevalence of chronic conditions or poor access to high-quality public health and medical care. And beyond the direct health impacts of the virus, the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on the financial security and mental health and well-being of people of colour, low-income people, LGBTQ+ people, and other underserved groups. But while the media has now drawn attention to these health disparities, they existed well prior to the pandemic. Outside of the COVID-19 narrative, many news stories also highlighted other topics such as maternal health equity, as Black women living in rural counties were reported to be much more at risk of pregnancy-related deaths, and life expectancy and chronic health equity, as the diabetes age-adjusted mortality rate has been much higher among Black people and American Indian/Alaska Natives than White people. By catapulting deep-seated disparities into the spotlight, many media publications have started scrutinising pharma companies for clinical trial diversity, pointing out that although communities of colour have been disproportionately affected by several diseases, they were largely underrepresented in trials.
- The metaverse is taken seriously. As we noted, the launch of Global Collaboration Village at WEF was perceived as a testament to the growing importance of the metaverse and a confirmation that business leaders and policymakers view this technology as an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on a global level. The conversation around the metaverse became particularly prominent since Facebook made headlines when it announced it would change its name to Meta, in an effort to rebrand and reflect its expansion into the metaverse. As we noted in our recent analysis on the topic, this attempt to control the metaverse narrative via its corporate rebranding is a clear sign that in the crowded tech industry, PR and comms are just as important as innovation. Many brands have tried to become synonymous with certain concepts but Facebook took it one step further and became literally eponymous with the metaverse by changing its corporate brand to Meta. In this way, early adopters of the concept can seem like followers.