A Memo From Davos: Takeaways From the World Communication Forum

April 14, 2015

[wikipedia commons]
[wikipedia commons]

On March 10-11, I had the privilege of speaking at the World Communication Forum in Davos. Discussions at the conclave of senior global practitioners made it clear that some long-overdue changes are finally underway in our profession — including an improved quality of government practice, increased recognition of the limitations of our work, the need for authenticity in our communications and a markedly greater focus on engaging employees.

Yet even as our profession evolves, other aspects remain the same, including the value of the traditional press in countries such as the United States, and the remarkably poor reputation that practitioners have garnered in too many places around the world.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the influential forum in Switzerland:

• Governments are becoming savvy.

Roman Vassilenko, chairman of the Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Committee for International Information, opened his talk with the old adage that a diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing.

Not anymore. For the first time, the forum included sessions on government and public diplomacy, along with an additional discussion on place branding. It was clear that government communicators are getting savvy — so much that, in a rather striking role reversal, the corporate communicators were the ones in the room taking notes.

One highlight was a talk on “Twiplomacy 2.015,” by Peter Susko, director of the Slovak Republic Foreign Ministry’s Press Department. Susko advised practitioners to hire staffers to set up a steady supply of tweet-worthy ideas — preferably “people who have mastered English on the level of poets” and can also help squeeze nuanced ideas into 110 characters or less (to leave room for retweets).

Other sound advice from Susko: Bounce your messages off your staff before hitting “tweet” to ensure that they won’t be misinterpreted, and look up hashtags before using them so that you don’t associate yourself with something “unsavory or embarrassing.” Finally, don’t over-tweet because “it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the influence.” One or two sharp tweets per day should suffice.

• Communicators are becoming humble.

Professionals in Davos stressed that we should strive for authenticity rather than alchemy — or, in the words of Tanuja Kehar, Unitech’s vice president of corporate communications, “communications can’t perfume a pig.” But what does build a brand is consistent product performance and customer service, Kehar said.

Subhagata Mukherjee, head of marketing and communications for Nokia in India, argued that brand trust is earned by delivering the experience that customers are expecting. As PR professionals, we are still needed, however. “At the end of the day, you have to build a massive system of engagement based on people evangelizing for you,” said Joerg Winkelmann, CEO and founding partner of Ming Advisory.

• Employee engagement is rising.

Speakers in Davos repeatedly emphasized that internal communication, once the red-headed stepchild of our profession, is essential.

For example, according to Winkelmann, the essence of a brand “all comes back to an inspired, skilled and motivated employee.”

Practitioners described the “dream company” as one that communicates its values to its employees, is generation-
sensitive and nonhierarchical, promotes work-life balance, empowers women and has emotionally intelligent leaders.

• The traditional media still matters — in some places.

The opening session on March 10 debated whether the “old days” — in which there was a neat separation between journalists and advocates — are over. I argued that the answer is place-specific. In the United States, for example, alongside Fox News and MSNBC, we still have broadcasters, such as ABC, CBS and NBC, which strive to be objective and to report the news with accuracy and fairness.

And this traditional media still matters. Americans may increasingly get their news through social media platforms, but a huge percentage of the stories they read on such platforms come from outlets such as The New York Times

In other countries, the old days never arrived. In China, for example, audiences are justifiably skeptical of the news that they receive from the government-controlled mainstream press, but a bevy of thought influencers — from actors to professors to independent journalists — have sprung up on social media and gained reputations for being reliable sources of news and other information.

• Communicating in global markets requires more than adapting our messages.

Given this diversity, participants agreed that the best communications are refined at the local level. Rana Nejem, founding director of the Jordanian cultural intelligence firm Yarnu, made a standout presentation on this subject.

Nejem argued that, as communicators, we must view the world through the lenses of our stakeholders and partners. We already know that we must adapt our messages to our audiences. But Nejem also talked about the ways in which we need to adapt our business practices.

Americans, for example, might be willing to eat a sandwich in the car between business meetings, but in the Arab world, sitting down for lunch is important. For the increasing number of organizations taking on foreign subsidiaries and partners, management needs to give top priority to cultural adaptation.

• We still need help with our own reputation.

Although the theme of ethics surfaced on numerous occasions, one discussion that participants left open-ended is whether practitioners need a better global ethical code. I discussed how, in interviewing practitioners around the world for my forthcoming book on global public relations, I was struck by the large number of professionals who do not like to use the term “public relations” to describe their work, because it carries a negative social connotation and is associated with “spin.” This appears to be especially prevalent in Western Europe, where PR practitioners increasingly call their work “strategic communications.”

Although we may be successfully bolstering the reputations of our clients, as global practitioners, we clearly need to find a way to improve impressions of our own profession, which depends on the way each and every one of us conducts ourselves.

Kara Alaimo, Ph.D.
Kara Alaimo, Ph.D., is a global PR consultant, assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, and a former communicator at the U.N. and in the Obama administration. Her book “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication” was published by Routledge in August 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @karaalaimo.


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