The application of thought leadership as a best practice public relations tactic is a given. But intelligence, insight, analysis and the construction of admirable, theoretical paths forward is a Pyrrhic victory if all it amounts to is talk, text and a contribution to reputation enhancement. Actions and behaviour are far more meaningful manifestations of leadership. It is this that will lead to best-possible reputation enhancement, not rhetoric.

Less talk more action = leadership

So is public relations failing by placing such an emphasis on thought leadership? Should we be focusing more on stimulating organisational action and, by extension, organisational and stakeholder behavioural change?

These thoughts were prompted by an article in The Monthly, which discusses the ‘failure of narrative’. It delves into the commonality of Obama and Ronald Reagan. Both have emphasised the ‘narrative arc’, the telling of stories. But, just as in PR, narrative (and thought leadership) is cheap. Taking action is the meat in the burger.

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Intellectual acuity is not enough to constitute effective leadership (unless you are an academic or a philosopher); leadership is about putting those thoughts into action; showing mettle, the courage of your convictions. It is not even necessarily about getting a result in this context. It is about showing the way through deeds not discussion.

The failure of public relations

By focusing on thought leadership, is public relations giving up the fight? I ask this in light of the remit of PR pros to instigate and facilitate change, both from an organisational and stakeholder behavioural perspective.

Of course, many in PR do not subscribe to the primacy of two-way symmetrical communication, which is what underpins this line of thinking. Those that do not subscribe to this notion can safely exonerate themselves from needing to do more than create heightened knowledge and enhanced perceptions of organisations.

It doesn’t seem a great leap, however, to assert that without an organisation willing to evolve its operations to be more in line with stakeholder expectations, to some degree at least, then it can hardly expect its stakeholders to evolve theirs to the satisfaction of the organisation.

Where thought leadership can make a difference

PR professionals will always find themselves in situation where they cannot apply the ‘ideal’ form of their discipline. Working in agencies is an obvious example.

Rarely are PR agencies commissioned to provide holistic advice and support. Mostly it is related to discrete programs. And even if there are a number of programs being implemented for a single client, it is highly unusual to be given the ‘keys to the kingdom’ to piece them together into a holistic approach.

This is not to say strategic advice along the lines of two-way symmetrical communication, including an organisation changing its approach, cannot be ingrained within distinct communication programs (and advice given by the PR consultant, for that matter).

If an organisation wants to become involved in a sponsorship program, for instance, the nature of its investment can be influenced by feedback from its target audiences (including its employees). They may, for instance, feel it is a good organisational fit to invest in education, disadvantaged communities, children’s’ sport or some other singular area.

When working in-house, the impact of PR on organisational operations and culture will depend significantly on how close to the top of an organisation the senior PR person sits. If the counsel of this professional is not sought or not held in high regard, then thought leadership might be about as good as the PR pro can get.

Better than nothing, but woe betide the organisation that speaks fine words but is, essentially, shown to be hypocritical in their application.

This can occur literally, in the sense the specifically espoused thought leadership is not actioned by the organisation; or it can occur by implication. By this I mean an admirable thought leadership position, and a highly respected reputation can be sought – and gained – in general, but if there are instances where the ‘spirit’ of this thought leadership and respectability is not manifested in organisational behaviour in non-thought leadership topic related areas, then once again it will be a reputation fail.

And when organisations fail and their reputation plummets, pray tell who are the first professionals brought into play to manage the reputation freefall and its attendant crises? You guessed it; that would be the public relations professional!

Thought leadership as a starting line

Organisational change (e.g. behavioural impact) needs to start somewhere, however. The expressing of an idea, or thought, seems like a pretty good point at which to do this to me. This will hopefully lead to discussion, interaction and communication, the basis for change actually occurring. Through this dialogue initial concepts and suggestions will be refined and made more practical, effective and achievable.

Do you design, implement or contribute to an organisational thought leadership program? What have you found to be the benefits and/or disadvantages of the programs? Do you feel they are an accurate reflection of organisational culture, or are they perhaps more about posturing?

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