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Thought leadership is a strategic approach to business communication which helps organisations positively position and differentiate themselves, in the process creating and enhancing relationships with key stakeholders. It contributes to excellent organisational reputation and the achieving of organisational objectives, including selling products and services.

It is one of the first approaches public relations professionals should consider as part of their communication arsenal. And as anyone who is inquisitive about public relations and/or is committed to continual professional development will tell you, the musings of experienced corporate communicator Craig Badings on his Thought Leadership blog are required and compelling reading.

Craig and Dr Liz Alexander have just published a fascinating, thought provoking and eminently practical e-book entitled 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign, which as the title implies contains a series of tweetable insights into the practice of thought leadership.

The e-book also provides additional perspective and context to assist in applying thought leadership as well as referencing a range of resources to help kick your brain into gear, increase the potency of your thinking on the discipline and help achieve the best results possible.

Such is the depth of information in this e-book, a single post discussing it will not do it justice, but some of the many aspects I found interesting are highlighted below.

The culture of thought leadership

Like CSR, thought leadership needs to be built-in, not bolt-on. As thought leadership is about providing perspectives and insights different (i.e. leading the way) to competitors, it makes sense for content/platforms to reflect the innovation and point of difference an organisation offers.

It will be difficult for organisations that do not behave in an innovative manner to think outside the square, or to at the very least seek to expand the boundaries of the square, which is essentially what thought leadership entails.

Conversely, the tail wagging the dog is a well known means of instigating change! If it takes a communication program to help galvanise an organisation into behaving differently, perhaps by seeing the impact a thought leadership campaign or approach can have, then why not!

Too often organisations (and public relations practitioners for that matter) rely on a crisis to help change organisational culture and behaviour. Why rely on bad news or bad things happening to motivate organisational evolution?

As Craig and Liz point out, thought leadership takes bravery to instigate as it sometimes means sticking your neck out, challenging orthodoxies. In pure business action, Henry Ford did it; Richard Branson did and does it; Dick Smith did and does it – and look at them.

Preparation and thinking for thought leadership

Craig and Liz hit on one of the biggest bugbears of the practice of public relations when they point out allowing time to think (and by extension, prepare) is a critically important element of thought leadership. Too often communication programs are undertaken without sufficient thought being put into them.

Whether it is the fault of the organisation/client or the PR practitioner, this is a risk-laden approach. And especially so with thought leadership.

Here are some steps to thought leadership that take time to get right:

  • Understanding what thought leadership positions competitors inhabit
  • Determining what the most productive thought leadership platforms are your organisation can inhabit
  • Identifying thought leadership business objectives and putting in place mechanisms to measure the impact of the campaign
  • Deciding – is this a campaign (e.g. does it have a limited lifespan) or is this a way of life (e.g. is the thought leadership program so embedded into, and driven by, organisational culture its intent is to continue and evolve on an ongoing basis?).

Listening in thought leadership public relations

It’s interesting the term ‘public relations’ doesn’t appear in the e-book narrative itself. Yet thought leadership is clearly a PR 101 strategic approach.

Why are Craig and Liz shy about flagging this? I bet it’s so as not to marginalise thought leadership in a perceived PR ‘ghetto’. This is somewhat of a shame as it’s reflective of a malaise within PR not to shout out the business relevance and potency of the discipline, but such is life.

Certainly, I can’t see how any other business discipline can lay claim to managing the approach effectively. Not marketing, that’s for sure.

One reason why PR is the only business discipline to practice thought leadership is because, as Craig and Liz imply, listening is an important aspect of not just thought leadership, but any communication strategy. This is to help understand the needs, wants and issues of stakeholders, then to help identify opportunities and threats relevant to stakeholder relationship enhancing.

(Or I guess we could call it stakeholder relations, which as I’ve written previously is simply a self-hating term for PR that we as practitioners have Harry Pottered up out of our shame in working in PR…or so it seems.)

One manifestation of listening is undertaking market research, and whilst there are inexpensive means of undertaking market research, other approaches include media and internet scanning, conversations with key stakeholders (including influencers over target audiences) and undertaking internal reviews with employees to gather intelligence from them as to what turns organisational stakeholders on…and off.

The fear of thought leadership

A fair criticism of thought leadership is it gives up organisational intellectual property other organisations can leverage to position themselves favourably. The IP can also give potential clients a resource for free that otherwise they would have paid for.

These comments are both true, so thought must clearly be given to the specific thought leadership platforms and what aspects of the platforms organisations will give up information on.

It is vital to remember that in an internet age it is increasingly expected organisations will give up information for free (an inbound marketing approach). This is partially because it has been proven the viral impact of sharing useful information positively impacts on organisational reputation and business results.

These results are equally relevant to the B2C and B2B environments, as well as a third paradigm I like to call B2Community.  This third paradigm is relevant in communicating with target audiences who are not necessarily going to buy a product or service. Examples are ratepayers in a local government area, or residents near large parklands or close to schools.

I have merely dipped a toe into the water of 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign and plan on returning to it in the future. What did you think about aspects of thought leadership and its salient issues discussed in this post? Can you give examples of effective and failed thought leadership programs? Do you have any insights and recommendations to share?

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