Think Carefully About Thought Leadership

Thought leadership can offer many benefits in public affairs but there can be too much of a focus on the media.  We need to be aware of the potential pitfalls and take action.

Thought leadership can set you apart from the competition, and we have to be aware that we are all competing for space in the political environment.  No one should believe that they are entitled to a seat at the table.  Even larger companies, representative organisations or charities should take their position for granted.

This means that we all need to keep moving the agenda forward, continue to generate new ideas and respond where we can.  This is how we can try to claim some space. No one is simply entitled to space, although not everyone realises that…

But if more of thought leadership approach is adopted then there are some potential pitfalls.  Here are some points to consider:

1: It’s not all about the media – yes, expressing opinions through the media can bring profile and attention but real thought leadership can’t just be about the comments. The media approach needs to build on a deeper commitment to the issues and upon firm foundations. The media comment should be, if you like, the icing on the cake rather than representing the entire content of the thought leadership.

2: The firm foundations – the thought leadership needs to be directly related to what your organisation does. It should not be a case of simply going after the media or policy space to get some attention. Otherwise the reaction by many will be to mistrust the comment, however well founded it is. Thought leadership should not come across as simply being opportunistic.

3: Living the thought leadership – before making any sort of public announcements, it has to be clear that your own organisation is abiding by your approach or is at least moving towards them. Otherwise the danger is one of cries of ‘hypocrisy’ or ‘double standards’. There is little worse for a reputation… So the thought leadership needs to be aligned internally and / or being implemented. Don’t get caught out by saying one thing but doing another.

4: Chase the policy opportunities – once the thought leadership is place then there is nothing wrong with chasing down the policy opportunities. Again, this means not being obsessed with media opportunities but thinking about how the thought leadership fits into the governmental agenda as well. This could be through consultations but could also be about looking for the right platforms to champion your thought leadership – policy conferences, alongside Parliamentary groups, through the work of Select Committees etc.

5: Develop over time – often thought leadership can be considered a fixed statement, a statement of intent or an approach. Instead, think about it developing over time. It doesn’t have to be completely definitive or ‘right’ from the very outset. Thinking should develop over time based on real life feedback, data and evidence. The ability to map this out over a period of time in a transparent way can reinforce the thought leadership, demonstrating commitment.  A blog can be a good way of doing this. Maybe even treating it as a professional diary?

6: Use it to engage – consider how best to use the thought leadership to engage with new audiences and potential supporters. Your own work can set the overall narrative and act as a way of ensuring a consistency of approach between different people and organisations.

While thought leadership can play a constructive role in public affairs, there are pitfalls to be avoided. There is also a requirement to be pro-active as well. One piece of thought leadership does not make a public affairs campaign.

Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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