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Where does thought leadership come from?

Thought leadership can play a valuable role in public affairs both in positioning people and organisations. But where does good thought leadership come from and how can you stand out?

Thought leadership has a range of definitions and much has been written about it in recent years. Much of this, however, focuses on business development. The need for thought leadership in public affairs often has different drivers.

The reasons for delivering thought leadership are roughly the same – to be seen as a trusted source of information, someone who is happy to share information, insight and advice.

Thought leadership is often considered more in a written format being shared over a range of channels (Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn). It can though also be delivered in person (at conferences and networking events). The traditional media too can also be a critical channel as well.

But from a public affairs perspective, thought leadership is not necessarily about growing a business (although it might be from consultancies!). Instead, thinking in terms of a public affairs campaign, it can help secure the attention with policy-makers to try to ensure that thoughts are listened to a little more attentively.

So, just as with other thought leaders you need to stand out from others. The best thought leaders stick to their field of expertise, understand that they are not necessarily qualified to range far and wide over unrelated matters and are happy to help with horizon scanning in their field.

Similarly, it takes time to build a reputation for thought leadership, results are not delivered instantly and cannot expect your target audience to suddenly listen to you.

From a public affairs perspective, here are some particular considerations.

  1. Latest issues – be sure to respond promptly to the latest developments in your field. Putting aside the potential media opportunities that may flow, political audiences listen to the immediate reactions. These can then be considered in campaigns over time.
  2. Say something new – draw information from a range of sources or interpret in a way that others are simply missing. This is the sort of insight that policy-makers find useful. Whether we are still living in an era of evidence-based policy making or ‘alternative truths’, there will still be no substitute for being able to draw and highlight real-life experiences.
  3. Bringing a new perspective – space in a policy area can often be hard to come by so you need to identify and utilise your own space. The perspective should reflect that space and should not reflect narrow commercial interests either. That could mean building the ability to draw thoughts up from within the organisation. Or, and in an era of mistrusting experts and traditional media, allowing others to speak as well. This means needing to have faith in them and training them in thought leadership as well.
  4. Ensure that what you say is genuine – if your position smacks too much of political posturing then it will not have the impact you are seeking. That sort of position can be too easily dismissed. Instead, it has to be reflective of a genuine understanding of the matter at hand and a personal commitment. Anything that smacks of opportunism should be avoided and will actually undermine the whole thought leadership approach.
  5. Think beyond your sector – part of the narrative needs to reflect upon how, for instance a new policy, has unintended consequences for you, your organisation and, importantly, beyond.

Often the private sector is freer to kick issues around and take a thought leadership role as there is not necessarily an agreed line that has to be stuck to at all costs. But that should not excuse others from thinking thought leadership and how it could be made to work for them.

The role of thought leadership should not be dismissed, it is a valuable tool in public affairs campaigns. But given the timescales involved, the sooner action is taken the better. You never know quite when it may be of greatest use.

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Stuart Thomson

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist at Bircham Dyson Bell LLP 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 worked 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', 'Public Affairs in Practice' (for the CIPR) and 'The Dictionary of Labour Quotations' (published by Britain's leading political publisher, Biteback). 'New Activism and the Corporate Response' was called a book that "every aspiring business leader should read" by MIS Asia. Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues. Stuart recently released a book published by Urbane Publications, 'Public Affairs: News, Views and Hullabaloos' based on his blog. He is also a CIPR trainer and was shortlisted for the 2014 Director of the Year award by the IoD and CIPR.

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