If the World Economic Forum is ever mentioned, the first thought you'd probably have is of a collection of global heavyweights "committed to improving the state of the world." Of course, like with any other conference or organization, the extent of such slogans is a careful media construct while simultaneously subject to their scrutiny. What follows now is a first-hand account of the daily mechanisms of how media, in addition to furthering key messages to the public, exerts an influence over the content produced at such high profile events.
At this year's annual meeting, I had the privilege of shadowing Oliver Cann and Yann Zopf, members of the communications and media team. My mentors for the day, they manage and operate the entire gamut of forum journalistic output coming from the 200-plus accredited members of the world reporting press and industry media representatives gathered in Davos. Being a newbie to the news and media industry, it felt like an intensive one-day apprenticeship. So with the requisite amount of nerves and excitement, I was keen to learn what is needed to shape the content of news and how to manage the global media presence that is essential to the annual meeting.
Orchestrating press conferences
The day begins at 8:30 a.m. The hallways are still rather empty in the morning as I wait for the start of the first press conference. As I see Mr. Cann, he introduces his colleagues from the World Economic Forum. "We're giving moral support to our boss," says a colleague, pointing to Benat Bilbao, Associate Director and Senior Economist at the Forum. In a few minutes, Mr. Bilbao will present the summary of the Global Competitiveness Report 2013 -- one of the Forum's key initiatives.
Only half an hour later, the press conference room still has more empty than full seats. We are ready to begin once Messrs. Cann and Bilbao, as well as Bernd Brunke from Roland Berger Strategy Consultants step up to the panel. Mr. Cann introduces the panelists and the topic to the audience -- a routine exercise for him by now. Any last minute changes go unnoticed on stage and the camera broadcasts the panelists' rehearsed explanations on how to reinstall the Eurozone's competiveness.
"I'll take the first question," says Mr. Cann 15 minutes later as he opens up the Q&A session. He picks the first hand that is raised by calling the Danish journalist to whom it belonged, by name. Still, it does not feel like a cozy atmosphere of a get together. The cameras stream every single word online, prompting the immediate scrutiny of the global news armada that is waiting outside the small press conference room.
The journalists' questions are directed to Messrs. Bilbao and Brunke. However, when a skeptical journalist asks how this report will make a difference, as its conclusions are the same as every year, Mr. Cann jumps in. Most likely not unaccustomed to this question, he argues that the report has an important physical dimension: it brings together multiple stakeholders in their respective regions to facilitate discussions on the ground that wouldn't have come together otherwise.
Before the start of the second morning press conference at 9:45 a.m., the gangways that were feeling empty only an hour ago are getting crowded. A photographer from Reuters almost hits me with his equipment as he scurries to get what one can only hope to be a Pulitzer Prize winning shot. Back in the press conference room, a Rwandan media team sets up an additional camera, foreshadowing the composition of the next panel. Unlike during the first morning session, this time around the journalists fill the room. Mr. Cann tells me that "we make efforts to get high-caliber people on record about topics we care about." As we are waiting for Rwandan President Paul Kagame, economist Jeffrey Sachs, and Novartis' CEO Joseph Jimenez, Klaus Leisinger, an elderly gentleman from the Novartis Foundation jokes, "It's like waiting for Godot." This alliteration to Samuel Beckett's classical theater play Waiting for Godot illuminates the sometimes-absurd wait for the absent important figures -- perhaps somewhat of a never-ending story, a regular occurence at Davos.
Half an hour later, Mr. Cann and the high-caliber panelists march into the press conference room. The session advocates for the One Million Health Workers campaign in Africa. One might think an important and impact-driven campaign, but Mr. Cann needs to call the present journalists for prudence. He opens the floor to questions by reminding us to ask "only questions about the campaign; we have time for two." Much to Mr. Cann's discontent, and in sheer irony, the first journalist asks the broadest question anyone could think of: "President Kagame, what do you think about the economic growth prospects of Africa?" he asks. Playing the exemplary apprentice, I pose the second question and ask Professor Sachs about the economics of scale involved in the campaign. Mr. Cann tells me afterwards, "I can only pick the one who raises his hand first; press conferences are meritocratic in that way."
Managing media on the ground
As the morning draws to a close, I start looking for my second task. At around 2:20 p.m., Angela Merkel started her speech on the Eurozone crisis in the plenary hall of the Congress Center. I am on the lookout for Yann Zopf. Earlier in the morning, he told me that he needs to keep an eye on the media, so I search the darkness of the auditorium for hints of his presence. I finally spot him keeping an eye on the teeming photographers competing for the top spots in front of Chancellor Merkel. I approach him while he whispers into his phone, apparently arranging an interview between David Cameron and a team of journalists. Busy as he is, I get distracted by Chancellor Merkel advocating for a unified Europe. Amongst the sea of professional journalists, I am finding it difficult to carve my space, and in the process, I immediately lose track of Mr. Zopf.
Finding Mr. Zopf a second time proved to be a more arduous task than the first time around. About half an hour later, I manage to locate him by sending an email. As we reconvene, Mr. Zopf navigates me through the hidden gangways of the conference dungeon. While rushing from one room to the next, Mr. Zopf answers emails, receives phone calls, and exchanges urgent words with passing media staff. All of this happens of course in a mix of three languages. In addition to his many responsibilities, Mr. Zopf is also in charge of servicing and controlling the French-speaking press representatives. Simultaneously, he is patiently explaining about his 10-year history at the Forum. To my surprise, Mr. Zopf does not even show a single sign of being stressed.
The team that Mr. Zopf is in charge of coordinates media groups at the conference site, which effectively means that they have to assist the media to get whatever story and footage they need. One of his colleagues, who is in charge of regional media, tells me, "it's quite competitive, the media pushes for the max." Unlike Mr. Cann, Mr. Zopf is not in charge of framing issues in the hopes of it getting picked up by the media. Instead, he is someone to be called for last-minute interview arrangements which the media so fiercely competes for. He also ensures that the various multimedia teams neither tread on each other's feet nor disturb the familiar atmosphere for the meeting's participants.
3:30 p.m.: we continue on with our next tasks. Mr. Zopf needs to get the BBC team and their equipment out of a conference room; France 24 is expected to take over its position. Leaving France 24 in the capable hands of Mr. Zopf's team, we squeeze ourselves into a small shuttle that drives us to the nearby media center. The media center provides desks for more than 200 members of the reporting press. Part of the Forum's media team is based here as well. At his desk, Mr. Zopf skims through press releases, does some editing, and then shouts to one of his colleagues that they are ready to be sent out.
Upon reflecting on my one-day apprenticeship, I am having a hard time making sense of it all. As a good academic, I had read plenty of literature on the media as well as various press articles prior to the event. Most of them would have described my subjects as cogs in a well-oiled Forum PR machine; or they would have described the WEF as a black box shaping the opinion of the global elite. On the contrary, what became apparent through the course of the day was that my two subjects were adroit in both dealing with the divergent interests of the world's media as well as highlighting the year-round work of the Forum at what is its most important -- and visible -- annual event.
My day finally ends at 4:15 p.m., as I rush back into the conference arena where France 24 had set up its team. Mr. Zopf quickly welcomes the debate's TV moderator. The Forum attendees impatiently await the start of the panel. In the back of the room, Mr. Zopf firmly, but quietly, gives the last commands into the headset to "run the late show." The camera lifts and pans over the auditorium. Another news item is out. Zopf gives me a satisfied smile, "Any more questions?" A minute later I lose him again.