Media Moves

The debate over Davos in the biz media

January 24, 2014

Posted by Liz Hester

The World Economic Forum is back in Davos and with it comes the debate (some might call it argument) that the conference is a playground for the rich elite instead of an exchange of ideas.

Christine Hauser wrote for the New York Times blog on Jan. 21 that the conference is coming under fire for not having enough women and other issues, particularly on social media forums:

But even before it starts, the World Economic Forum — which gets rolling Wednesday, after an opening ceremony on Tuesday, and runs through Jan. 25in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland — is being scrutinized on social media with an especially sharp eye on one of this year’s themes: economic inequality.

Some of the online discussion focused on how few delegates are women —only 15 percent of the more than 2,500 participants attending — and whether the profile of the attendees adequately represented the world.

But the issue of economic inequality seemed to spur the greater share of the social media focus, in terms of both worldwide and individual wealth and the forum’s apparent pecking order.

Then there’s the fight over corporate money chronicled in a Bloomberg Businessweek piece by Erik Schatzker on Jan. 20:

World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab said he’s in a “constant fight” to keep corporate interests from commandeering the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, even as his organization collects about $200 million from sponsors such as Citigroup Inc., Google Inc. and Accenture Plc.

“We fight the commercialization of the meeting,” Schwab said yesterday in a Bloomberg Television interview in Davos, the alpine town southeast of Zurich that hosts the meeting. “The forum has a great opportunity to tell the business community: You have to act in the global public interest.”

It’s a balancing act for Schwab, admonishing his corporate benefactors for an overemphasis on profits while at the same time holding his hand outstretched. Companies each pay 500,000 Swiss francs ($550,000) annually to become a “strategic partner” of the forum. In return they get exposure — a larger delegation and roles in panel discussions at the annual meeting — and media support. The 110 listed on the WEF’s website generate about $60 million in fees.

Industry partners get a lesser package of similar benefits for 250,000 francs. The WEF has about 500, good for almost $140 million in additional revenue.

Writing for the Huffington Post blog Jan. 22, Bloomberg TV anchor Francine Lacqua acknowledges the criticism, but argues that ideas trump all:

I myself have been covering the event as a Bloomberg Television anchor for over eight years and I’m a big fan of Davos, so I disagree with the cynics.

For me, it is all about the exchange of ideas whether that takes place on a panel in the conference hall, on the dance floor or in the hotel bar – it really doesn’t matter.

Much like political party conferences in the UK, socialising with a glass of bubbly goes hand in hand with the major speaking events and announcements that take place over the course of the four days.

In fact, most of the time, it provides a welcome distraction from the serious nature of the conversations being discussed. Delegates tend not to party too hard though, given the schedule kicks off at 8am each day and the daily programme is jam-packed with side events and other forums for debate.

This year’s meeting is particularly significant as it is the first Davos in five years where we aren’t tackling a crisis – the broader financial outlook is a little more positive for economies around the globe compared with 2012 or 2011. This helps to create a slightly less pressurised environment both for delegates and the journalists chasing down the stories.

Nevertheless, with chatter moving away from talk about whether certain companies will survive the global downturn toward more forward-focused discussion about the products they are producing and other innovations, there’s still a lot for us to cover.

Writing in his New York Times column on Jan. 20, Andrew Ross Sorkin took the time to drop the notable names who would not be attending the event:

The World Economic Forum, for which the cost of membership and a ticket to the annual meeting is more than $70,000, is both admired and derided as a velvet-rope club for the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, once attended Davos only to dismiss it as “a constellation of egos involved in massive mutual orgies of adulation.”

Whatever their reasons for staying away, the leaders of some of the largest and most transformative companies are demonstrating, with their absence, the difficulty of convening a global conversation with all the main stakeholders. Given that one of the themes this year is how to address economic inequality, it would be helpful to have the world’s largest employers participate in that discussion, not to mention a sampling of rank-and-file workers, who never receive an invitation.

It is interesting that the richest people in business and government are all meeting in a Swiss resort town to tackle “inequality” for the price of $70,000 a head. Sorkin makes a great point that many voices are missing from this conversation. Yet, the conference continues to grow, garnering thousands of articles and commanding hours of television time. But does it really solve anything? I’d like to see the Davos follow-up article outlining steps companies have taken to make changes after the event become a standard part of coverage for all organizations that attend.

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