Something for Everyone at Davos February 2, 2016

By Bill Heyman

After nearly a week of eighteen-hour days spent traversing the hilly, snow-covered streets of Davos for a seemingly endless lineup of breakfasts, presentations and cocktail receptions, I really just wanted to get home to my family in New York. But a historic snowstorm on the East Coast stranded me in Zurich, and I had an entire weekend to myself to think about whether this annual odyssey is worth the effort and the exhausting pace.

Heyman Associates does executive search work focused on one field – communications – and there are many organizations that put on wonderful conferences specifically for the profession. The Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, where the talk was of global politics, financial markets and the digital economy, might not seem like an obvious place for top communicators to congregate. However, with 2,500 of the world’s business, NGO and political leaders in town and all the media attention on them, it makes sense that many top communicators were there – but not only to field questions from journalists.

Attendees approach Davos from a variety of perspectives. CTOs might be focused on cybersecurity, CFOs on international tax strategy and financial reporting, and CEOs on their given industries. Everyone, top communicators included, can take away something useful from the wide-angle discussions there, which have a tendency to break down professional silos and invite deep thinking.

We heard thoughtful remarks from the head of a professional services firm about how companies seem to be cutting their capital expenditures on R&D, a worrisome trend that could hamper innovation in certain sectors. Similarly, many spoke of recent mega-mergers, some driven purely by financial considerations, that could stifle competition across entire industries. Huge, world-driving issues like these will no doubt impact companies’ branding, social media strategies and public affairs efforts – all grist for the communicators who were in attendance to process.

Of course, the event also offers incredible access to top-tier journalists, the leaders of global PR agencies and, it seemed, entire corporate C-suites drifting from one event to another like so many armadas on an ocean. You can bump into nearly anybody at Davos – on trains or on planes, in hotel lobbies and event spaces. And the best part about it? You all share a common, unspoken purpose while you are there. People were eager to connect and immediately start thinking long term about mutual interests.

The center of gravity for the communicators there is probably the annual dinner at Ella’s. What started ten years ago as a low-key get-together of a half dozen communications leads has developed into a must-attend event that draws well over a hundred professionals in the field. And, in keeping with the World Economic Forum backdrop, there was a great deal of thought-provoking conversation on offer. It was terrific.

So, with the packed schedule, the winter travel delays and the lost work days, will I be returning to Davos again next year? I plan on it. When this year comes to a close, I expect to be eagerly anticipating another week in the Swiss Alps, in January 2017. And it is easy to see why many communications professionals would feel the same way. It’s not really an “industry” event for anybody, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a rare opportunity to take off the blinders and have serious conversations about things not typically discussed in a business setting, and without those interactions feeling forced or unnatural. All in all, the benefit I get out of the experience is far greater than all of the energy I have to put into it. And that’s saying a lot.

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