Woman leading a debate with a group or people around a meeting table.

How To Lead The Debate

There can often be a need to get ahead of an issue and to lead the debate. This can help secure stakeholder attention and contribute to becoming a trusted adviser. But, how can you do that?

There are obviously many ways that an organisation can seek to lead the debate. In some issue areas the path will be clearer than for others. In some spaces, the quest for attention and to lead the debate is much more competitive.

The reasons for seeking to lead are most keenly focused on gaining traction with key stakeholders. Leading the debate can help in being seen as an expert. Such an active contribution means that you stand a higher chance of being listened to and gaining the influence being sought.

That expertise is a very necessary part of the journey to being a trusted adviser. Unless you have something to contribute, some insight, expertise, experience, or data then you really do not have any expertise. If you do have it then you need to be able to convey it to the right people, at the right time.

So how can you lead the debate?

  1. Quietly, over time – leading the debate does not necessarily need to be played out in public. It can be done just one-to-one with stakeholders.
  2. Big bang – the efforts could be about how you grab attention in a very public way. If this is the case, then consideration will need to be given to the media relations as well. Will they be interested in your potential story?
  3. Thought leadership – I have written previous posts about the role and potential pitfalls of thought leadership and its role in building reputation. It is important to remember that it can be led by an individual or by an organisation. It depends on who wants to ‘own’ it and how it fits with the rest of your campaign.
  4. The format can vary – there is no single way that is best. The form can vary including contributing to other people’s work; specialist research; White Papers. It also doesn’t need to just be about the delivering work in a written format. Consider images, videos etc. It can all work depending on your intended audience.
  5. Business relations – you can think more broadly than just the specific policy area that you are trying to influence. You could, for instance, lead the debate in key areas of your business or Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) plans. This could be seen more in terms of building reputation to secure influence.
  6. Partner with others – think about working with others if that helps lend credibility to you or enables you to reach stakeholders than might otherwise elude you.

If you are though going to try and lead the debate, then there some basic ground rules to consider:

  • Ensure the issue is related to your core activities, not just added on to get some publicity.
  • Deliver what the stakeholder really wants, not what you think they need to hear.
  • Work out where the best space for you to lead is.
  • Prepare for pushback, especially in more competitive spaces. You could encounter criticism.
  • Plan properly to lead the debate and the stay out in front. Do not fade badly after your initial efforts.
  • Never be afraid to pro-actively reach out to audiences, it won’t all happen organically.
  • Do not underestimate the time involved.

Critically plan and prepare to lead. Take the necessary steps and you can make it work.


Image by SolStock on iStock

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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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