A new davos playbook for the post-trust era 

In 2021, an FT headline declared that Davos – the famed annual gathering of world leaders in the Swiss Alps – is “dead”, killed in part by the “terminal lack of legitimacy and credibility” that has plagued its host organisation, the World Economic Forum (WEF), particularly in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic.


By 2023, despite predictions otherwise, Davos was back, with the WEF citing a record number of participants and media coverage across influential global outlets. Davos, like its octogenarian founder Klaus Schwab, had proven to be resilient, remaining a milestone each January for global leaders across stakeholder groups – including business, government, civil society, media leaders and youth leaders – to come together and collaborate in what is otherwise an increasingly fragmented world.


That said, as Davos veterans would attest, something has changed. Despite its celebrated bounce back, there has been a different vibe up in the Alps since Covid, one more muted and focused on the work at hand. Many would argue this is for the better: the Davos of pre-Covid had become a high-octane gathering of elites jostling to tout their achievements and land invites to celebrity-sprinkled parties.


Despite tireless efforts by WEF leadership to quiet the noise, Davos had evolved into the place for companies to amplify tightly-controlled corporate narratives and endorse their patent solutions to big problems. The scent of self-promotion in the air has often been stronger than that of Swiss fondue.


But the last few years have seen tectonic shifts in society’s awareness of global issues and expectations thrust on companies to take some responsibility to address them. This has created new rules for corporate engagement, and, as the season for Davos registration kicks off, executives need to rethink their strategies for “showing up” and how that sets the tone for the year ahead.


Let’s start with the global audience, which leaders in Davos compete to reach through their packed agendas of interviews and social media campaigns. Covid accelerated the already-evolving expectations of what people want from their leaders: honesty, openness, empathy, and – most importantly – legitimate engagement on major issues such as climate change, equity and health. According to a recent Weber Shandwick survey in the US, for example, most consumers expect companies to take public positions on critical social issues, with human rights and climate change topping prime areas where they are expected to have public positions and find solutions.


Many companies have already responded to this shift in stakeholder expectations by jumping on the ESG bandwagon and integrating impact-driven metrics into their business, using Davos as a “tentpole” moment to talk about how they did good while doing well. However, we have now entered a post-trust era where the term “greenwashing” – and its cousins “bluewashing”, “pinkwashing” and “rainbow-washing” – is becoming commonplace and sensitising a broader stretch of the general public to corporate hype.


A warning shot was fired with The New York Times’ recent coverage of the “circus-like” NYC Climate Week, which was characterized by a “boggling array” of corporate marketing activities that have scaled up faster than actual climate solutions. With COP28 up next, media and consumers alike are on high alert for corporate spin, laying an “impact trap” for companies eager to promote the outcomes of their social or environmental initiatives. Avoiding this backlash will require companies to get more strategic on how and when to communicate on their impact.


What then does this mean for a global stage like Davos? How can one of the world’s most powerful geopolitical platforms be leveraged without backfiring?


While there is no one answer, there is clearly a common denominator: a recognition you don’t have all the answers. In the age of the polycrisis – a phrase that was high on the Davos agenda in 2023, reflecting the potent mix of environmental, economic, health and geopolitical issues simultaneously facing society – it is becoming increasingly less plausible that any one company has the answer, let alone the full facts or perspectives, needed for real progress. The most critical issues of our time are deeply systemic, and companies need to rewrite their corporate engagement strategies in turn.


How does this look in practice? Here is where communicators can start:


•   Ensure you have fully framed a problem before offering solutions: use design thinking techniques, including asking the right questions, to re-interpret the problem statement if need be.


•   Practice true stakeholder engagement: bring back meaning to this buzz phrase by fully mapping out the actors in your value chain and creating the right channels to engage them in two-way conversations.


•   Build coalitions: admitting you don’t have all the power to tackle deep issues isn’t being humble, it’s being realistic. Use the power of your platform to connect dots and build coalitions, including with competitors, to mobilise resources and enact systems-wide change in the longer-term.


•   Cede the floor to those who are normally underrepresented: when showing up at global events, strive to be the moderator or convener who enables others to articulate their views, as opposed to expecting to be the featured speaker on centre stage.


There is no ‘one size fits all’ – cultural norms and personalities play a big role here – but the baseline ethos is that companies should be using milestones like Davos to uncover blind spots and bring along others who know better. I cannot say how many more lives the WEF has, but if leaders can show up ready to listen and learn, it could breathe another few decades of credibility and productivity into the platform.