PR lessons from Web Summit 2023
December 18, 2023
In 2022, Web Summit was on top of the world. The company’s flagship Lisbon event, described as “the world’s premier tech conference”, set a record for attendees (71,033) following the lull of the pandemic. The event was also widely praised for its vocal support and championing of Ukrainian tech startups following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
One year later, everything changed. Paddy Cosgrave, founder and now ex-CEO of Web Summit, expressed his view on current world events on X, prompting negative sentiment around the show. This serves as an invaluable lesson on how just one comment, particularly individual opinions around sensitive geopolitical issues, can quickly impact a carefully planned flagship event — and a brand overall.
The comments cast a shadow over the run up to the conference and hung heavy over the show itself. Exhibitors at the 2023 show pulled out. Big name brands such as Meta, Google and IBM withdrew from their speaking and partner engagements at the show. To complement our PR team’s presence on the conference floor in Lisbon, FINN’s Global Intelligence team monitored the news and social media channels around the event and the data was strikingly clear.
The Web Summit conversation
From peak event run-up on 9 October to post-event on 21 November, roughly 44% of results referred to Cosgrave’s remark to some extent. This is just from using a loose term to analyse conversations around Web Summit. The true percentage is likely much higher.
Even with this rough data, we can see how the mentions influenced coverage: story sentiment was overwhelmingly negative in the lead up to the event; the remarks even negatively impacted post-event stories that were otherwise positive.
However, Cosgrave’s decision to resign as CEO roughly a week after his comment did have an impact. While his controversial comments continued to dominate coverage in the run up to the event, other subjects came into focus as the Summit got underway.
Combining the insights of our Global Intelligence team with the topics that we saw while attending the summit itself, we’ve pulled together insight into the top subjects that inspired interest at the conference:
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) (57.3%)
Unsurprisingly, AI took the spotlight as a major theme, commanding 57.3% of results, split 60% from media and 40% from conversations on social platforms.This is consistent with what we saw at the show — it was impossible to go five minutes without encountering an AI startup, or hearing one of the event’s speakers share insights on AI applications, implementation or governance. Many of the AI-related talks at the event broached the subject in the expected ways, positing how generative AI can help you do your job better or what the next 12 months hold for AI in various vertical markets.AI fatigue had set in by the third day, and so the talks that continued attracting audiences took more unconventional angles — artificial general intelligence from the likes of SingularityNet, for example — or addressed concerns around accuracy and security, such as talks by Jimmy Wales and Chelsea Manning. Our listening tools showed the same thing: those that offered perspectives on pain points or took a unique slant garnered the most attention.
- Crypto (19.5%) and blockchain (13.6%)Crypto and blockchain technologies collectively accounted for a significant slice of the conversation around the conference itself, with the topics proving particularly popular on social media. Probably not too surprisingly for those that frequently use X, 62% of the coverage of crypto was driven on the platform.The show saw most of the attention around crypto and blockchain tied to the realms of Fintech and decentralised finance (DeFi), with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) making up a small number of sessions. For the most part, the conversation around crypto doesn’t seem to have moved far beyond the talking points of the past few years. It’s only in the context of crypto’s own perception problem — from a mix of the FTX collapse and much-reported boom-and-bust cycle — that the theme stands apart from 2022.
- Ukraine (5.5%)Web Summit’s support of Ukrainian tech companies in 2022 was one of its highlights, and that continued into 2023. While it made up a relatively small percentage of the coverage — with more than two-thirds of that (69%) being driven by social conversations — online, its presence in Lisbon itself was undeniable. The Ukraine pavilion at the show was by far the busiest area outside of the main stage, with a mini presentation stage and a bustling assortment of Ukrainian start-ups showcasing their businesses. Companies from no-code AI tools (Datuum) to enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions, investment groups (Roosh), and even a producer of paper from urban waste (ReLeaf), were all present and attracting audiences.Online, the biggest talking point from Ukraine at Web Summit was around a particularly impassioned main stage conversation with Wladimir Klitschko on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and the tech industry in Ukraine.
- Sustainability (4.1%)A throughline at the event was sustainability, in the tech industry and in society broadly. Web Summit always places a spotlight on greentech. This year was no different, but alongside greentech was another recurring theme: the sustainability of AI.A handful of sessions were dedicated to how AI can be made greener, but the topic routinely arose beyond those specific talks. Many companies spoke candidly on the challenge it can present. Meanwhile, one clip from the show saw Microsoft’s chief strategy officer Melanie Nakagawa discuss how AI could help accelerate solutions to climate problems.Yet, it was a well-timed report from a management consultancy absent from the event, with comment from regular Web Summit speaker and Bolt CEO Markus Villig, on urban mobility and its role in a more sustainable society that secured the highest profile media coverage on the topic, with a Reuters write up.
Word spreads fast in the digital age, and a one-off comment can travel around the world before a PR team has time to react. Web Summit is a prime example of how a spokesperson’s actions — be that courting controversy or being caught unprepared and off-message — can have a huge impact on a brand.
For Web Summit, the impact was immediate. In terms of hard numbers:
- 797 fewer attendees (note: most tickets would have been sold prior to Cosgrave’s comments — anecdotally, we noticed that the pavilions of Lisbon’s Altice Arena seemed far emptier than in previous years)
- 175 fewer investors in attendance
- 21 fewer partner companies supporting the event
- 7 fewer countries represented at the show.
The team at Web Summit acted relatively quickly and took the best steps they could to manage the situation. Fortunately, the event’s global popularity soon helped the focus of conversation shift to technology, and we’ll likely see it recover over time due to its damage limitation effort. But, many companies aren’t as fortunate, and avoiding incidents like this is always better than recovering from the fallout.
It all reinforces the importance of reputation management and PR at a time when brand control can slip through a company’s fingers at the tap of a spokesperson’s smartphone. As more companies strive to be thought leaders in their markets, and build up their senior spokespeople as brand representatives, reputation management needs to be in the mind of every person who makes up that brand.
To connect with your target audience, it is crucial to understand their thoughts, motivations and challenges. Our Global Intelligence team combines breakthrough technology with deep expertise to provide actionable insights that inform strategic, results-driven integrated marketing programmes. Please get in touch to find out how our team can support your brand by maintaining its reputation, enhancing awareness and navigating unexpected crises.