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On the subject of thought leadership

Posted 04.03.2020
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Thought leadership is seemingly in vogue, a now mainstream buzzword amongst PR professionals seeking to add value to their profession.

Creating assets to feed through communications channels, and providing considered comment in order to engage in, or indeed lead, a meaningful conversation to move the industry forward is a positive thing. However, too often clients come to PR agencies wanting ‘thought leadership’ without having worked through the fundamentals of their brand or indeed being clear on why they want to communicate, beyond getting coverage. The result is often a series of confusing, disparate and increasingly sensational transmissions that may result in headline-grabbing clickbait but does little to build trust in the minds of their stakeholders, let alone position themselves as thought leaders.

And the key word here is transmission. True thought leadership means firstly creating genuine intellectual capital, and secondly engaging in a sustained conversation with the industry to achieve a shared goal, drive progress and enact change. Just adding ‘noise’ to the conversation for the sake of generating a few column inches or inflating the CEO’s ego isn’t helpful, particularly given the tsunami of views, opinions and comment we see daily across the plethora of news channels, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media.

The first rule of communications is to only communicate when you have something meaningful to say and you want people to think, feel or do something differently. The rest is just noise, or ‘fried air’ as Roberto Giorgi once put it.

To quote another ex-colleague, ‘thought leadership relies on leaders having thoughts’. Too often an ill-prepared CEO is put forward to speak on a topic he or she is unfamiliar with in the hope of building a thought leadership position. Often it results in the opposite outcome. Far better to put forward your true subject-matter experts who have real, validated knowledge and proven insight, and have built trust with the industry through many years of experience on the subject.

Which brings us back to the ‘why’. True thought leadership, and indeed, any effective communications strategy, can only be founded on and aligned to a clear understanding of a company’s brand – its purpose, its core beliefs, its vision, its values, culture and customer promise. Ultimately, it is the brand that drives everything.

For many companies, this just isn’t understood. A recent PRWeek article highlighted that most B2B leaders know purpose is important, but very few say it’s an integral part of their business, and most think purpose engagement feels like a PR tactic, according to new research.

If you can’t inspire or articulate why your people should get out of bed in the morning, then it’s best to stay in bed. People want to work for and work with companies and organisations that have a clear sense of purpose in why they exist, who they serve and what their contribution is, not just to shareholders but to society as a whole.

The current focus on ESG (environment, social and governance) reporting underlines this point. Brand and purpose cannot be just a PR tactic. The drive for ESG transparency is challenging companies to look at the fundamentals of what they believe in and why they exist. Hard business decisions are having to be taken, and commitments made, that extend beyond shareholder return. What were once thought of as PR problems are now being viewed as fundamental business problems.

Effective thought leadership is therefore not about adding noise to the conversation, it’s about clearly articulating your beliefs and commitment to effect change.

I’m slightly loathe to quote for former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but she made a very fine point about thought leadership. “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.”

In other words, your thoughts become how your brand is perceived, so you need to be damn sure that you’re clear on why you’re communicating and how it aligns to your company’s brand and purpose.


Mark Stokes

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