Changing the perceptions of public-private cooperation

In 2015, the World Economic Forum had the opportunity to build on its legacy to become a platform for public-private cooperation. The communications function played a central role towards this goal, ensuring that the public is aware of an expanded remit to transform global agendas and, most importantly, is empowered to participate.

US Secretary of State John Kerry takes a moment on January 22, 2016, to enjoy the view of Davos, Switzerland, before delivering remarks to attendees at the World Economic Forum / US State Department/Public Domain



Crisis and hardship may be a recurrent feature of human history; however, it is hard to argue against the fact that the challenges facing our world today are more complex, interrelated and faster-changing than anything we have faced in the past.

Climate change, migration, slow growth and growing geopolitical tension are just a few of the pressures facing today’s leaders, who in normal years might have expected to have to deal with one such herculean task.

Developing a radar system capable of sensing the great shifts that are transforming our world, and more importantly a compass to navigate them is the purpose of the World Economic Forum. Driven by a mission to improve the state of the world, the organisation works on the simple premise that sometimes challenges are so large, so complicated, and with the potential to impact so many people’s lives, that they can only be addressed by unified, multi-stakeholder action.

 This principle, which has served as a bedrock for all of the Forum’s activities for over four decades, was underlined in 2015 when the Forum was recognised by Swiss law as the International Institute for Public-Private Cooperation. As a ‘renewal’ of its licence to operate, the institution is now even more committed not only to convening leaders but to catalysing action in a range of areas, from inclusive economic growth to food security to building a robust global financial system.

It has also given an opportunity to re-assess the communication function. With the forces of populism and nationalism on the rise, and the ability of leaders to make long-term decisions under pressure, the need to meaningfully engage the public to play an active role in shaping debates that have a long term impact on our collective future has never been more important.

Oliver engaging the crowd at the 2016 European Communication Summit

 We have been moving in this direction for many years, of course: one of the chief criticisms of our annual meeting, Davos, is its composition. Few people would disagree that global leadership has a diversity problem and this is why we encourage our strategic partners to take advantage of a quota system to bring more women in their delegations, ensure millennial voices are heard through our Global Shapers community, that we produce research year in year highlighting ways to tackle gender and income inequality and promote social mobility.

“The need to meaningfully engage the public has never been more important.”

 All of which helps us when we engage the public, but there are still perennial challenges we face when we try to bring the debates of Davos outside the limited confines of its congress center. One of which is that we are an all-year-round operation, with our annual meeting marking the beginning of the year’s work, putting down targets for the regional, industry and other taskforces for the rest of the year. Another is how to get the public – either via the media or directly using our own channels – interested enough to participate in the work we do throughout the year rather than simply tuning in during Davos for the headlines.

A strategy of expansion

 Our approach to this has been to develop a strategy based on expansion of earned and owned media that places the Forum’s unique, world-class content right at the centre of everything we do. The result has been vastly increased levels of engagement across every metric.

1) Fitting the message to the medium: Every year, the Forum generates a huge amount of research and thought leadership on a great diversity of topics – from rules for autonomous vehicles to designing justice systems in the emerging world. It’s content that on the whole is written for the expert audience: a small number of CEOs, policy makers and politicians and serves that purpose very well. But the language is often impenetrable to general audiences. Doing a better job of mining these rich seams of content, pulling out the most relevant elements and providing a captivating headline has helped us introduce complex debates into the public domain, often for the first time.

“Mining these rich seams of content has helped us introduce complex debates into the public domain.”

 2) Innovating with content: Today the Forum’s blog platform, Agenda, rivals some newspapers for size but it wasn’t always this way. A lot of research goes into what makes a piece successful and today nothing gets published without at least one graphic element and a carefully designed headline. We have found both can have a ten-fold impact on readership before anything else is taken into account. We also work a lot more with video today and this is a trend that will likely continue.

 3) Being bold: The Forum isn’t an advocacy organisation but this doesn’t mean we cannot get behind grassroots initiatives. The 2016 annual meeting saw LGBT issues represented on the public programme for the first time thanks to a new format designed to enable the public to ask questions to leaders within the congress center. As part of the build-up to our regional meeting in Africa this year, we worked with Global Shapers to raise awareness for greater internet access on the continent. The campaign is still trending across Africa.

4) Going local: The meetings we hold around the world are not about flying in, holding a few sessions and flying out again. Great effort is taken to ensure our precious quota of media badges get us the biggest audience possible, the campaigns and content are the most relevant and the local personalities we work with amplify our message to the max. Working in this way for our Africa meeting in 2016, for example, saw the value of our media engagement increase by 600 per cent.

 5) Grow traditional media: Last but by no means least. Given the huge business model disruption affecting the news industry, it’s hugely gratifying to note that their commitment to quality news generation is in rude health. Packaging our content creatively and compellingly has led to double digit year on year improvements on the content we share throughout the year, even in print.

Oliver Cann

Oliver Cann is responsible for coordinating all of the World Economic Forum’s media output, including its globally recognised Global Competitiveness, Global Risks and Global Gender Gap reports. Overseeing an account management structure that represents the interests of groups as diverse as faith and trade union leaders alongside business leaders and youth activists, his job is to help ensure that the many voices get heard on the Forum’s media channels, as well as its annual meeting at Davos-Klosters and other events around the world.