Some people might think they’ve had enough of ‘experts’ and ‘thought leaders’, but they haven’t met yours yet…
In September 2010, economist Jeremy Cook appeared on BBC News 24 to discuss the US Federal Reserve’s decision to maintain its existing interest rates in spite of the country’s flagging economy.
The US central bank’s inaction had surprised analysts and, in the wake of the global recession, the two-and-a-half-minute slot at 8.40pm in the evening was bread-and-butter business news.
Cook spoke knowledgeably about the effects on international markets. He acknowledged the disappointment of financial institutions and predicted a future injection of funds into the economy through quantitative easing.
His appearance went well. In the following months he was asked back to comment on everything from the rise in the price of gold to Greece’s national debt. “From that first live appearance, the next month I had two, and 12 months later I was doing two a week,” he says.
Namechecked as chief economist for disruptive online currency exchange World First, Cook’s willingness to “stand on a cold rooftop and talk about sterling” has underpinned the firm’s communications strategy.
“In a sector that has been dominated by banks, we are trying to position World First as a viable alternative. As a small or medium-sized business, providing expert commentary allows you to expand the image and reach of your company, and makes you look like a bigger player than you actually are,” he explains.
At the time of those first BBC appearances, World First had 180 employees; it now has an international team of 600. While the business’s growth is not solely down to Cook’s energetic public profile, up to 60% of his time is now spent on media engagement. He says: “It has let press and clients know that we are available and helped to gain their trust.” Across large companies and small, public-sector and private, communications professionals will long for their own in-house ‘thought leader’ to enjoy a profile as pronounced as Cook’s. Want to harness the power of your own experts? Here’s how to do it.
Choose your topic wisely
The subject that an organisation engages with and speaks out about should align with its business objectives: it should be an issue that the organisation’s goods or services can help solve. “Internally you need to assess where your expertise lies and who you want to talk to, and externally you should look at what other people – including your competitors – are saying, and identify the white space,” says Jon Bennett, director at Linstock Communications.
The agency has helped Grant Thornton cement its reputation as a global advisory firm that helps businesses harness talent and skills. One way Linstock helps is by promoting Grant Thornton’s insights on gender equality in the workplace. Each year attention is turned to a different aspect of professional equality, such as the challenges facing women in FTSE-listed companies, or which country has the most women in senior leadership roles.
“It works because it’s answering questions that a lot of Grant Thornton’s potential clients are grappling with,” explains Bennett. Importantly, each topic also has longevity. “If the debate and discussion around a topic constantly move on, you can continue to be talked about. The media comes back to Grant Thornton to ask its view on new equality issues because of the expert position it has been able to set up.” Dealing with a similar topic, the Chartered Management Institute gets regular coverage through its updated gender salary survey.
Do your research
One way to communicate your expertise is to offer analysis of a particular story to the media. However, to gain real traction, you should consider adopting a thought-leadership approach. “The real expert is an individual or organisation that can provide new insight from its own evidence that changes the tone or direction of a debate – that’s thought leadership,” says Bennett.
That means being prepared to dig deep into your own data or commission new research to create a compelling argument. “A time-honoured and successful media technique is the publication of an annual survey by X or Y. It allows you to repeat methodology and comment on how things have changed over time so that you can remain relevant to what is going on in current affairs and policy,” he explains.
Grant Thornton’s expertise is packaged as an annual Women in Business report. In 2015, it surveyed businesses in 40 economies about issues such as support for boardroom quotas, and unveiled its findings on International Women’s Day (8 March). The findings – distilled into blogs, social media posts and graphics – were then easy to use for stakeholder and media engagement in different regions.
The report fuelled 600 articles globally. Four features in The Financial Times’ Women in Business supplement used the firm’s research and commentary, including the front page and main infographic. To date, there have been more than 22,000 views of the report on the Grant Thornton website, 12,000 LinkedIn impressions and 500 retweets.
If you want to follow a similar approach in your own organisation, you should reckon on a three- to six-month timescale to get all the research and amplification components in place.
Get buy-in from the board
Thought leadership should bring together ideas from across your business. “The most successful organisations I’ve seen have a centralised thought-leadership strategy – some have a committee where people represent each business area,” says US headhunter Sara Noble, who has sourced in-house thought leaders for many professional services and strategy firms, such as McKinsey.
The individuals that Noble has hand-picked are tasked with assimilating this expertise and generating content. To do so, they need to ask challenging questions of senior figures. The thought leader should have subject knowledge, and good writing and editing skills, in order to drive content that addresses issues in the marketplace.
“The best candidates are ‘straddlers’. They know how to be a good storyteller, but they also know how to target the content. They may have worked in journalism first, and then a corporate environment,” explains Noble.
Define a message
Hard graft done, it’s time to distil your expertise into useful sound bites for the market. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes official statistics related to aspects of the UK economy and society on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis. When new material is published, well-oiled public relations processes kick into action.
“We have a communications responsibility to help the wider public, and stakeholders with an interest in those areas, to understand the statistics and the world around them,” says the ONS’s head of comms, Chris Lines.
First, the key points and any notable movements in data are identified in partnership with the organisation’s statisticians. “Once we’ve highlighted that, we ask: ‘If a journalist wanted a top-line quotation that summarises what a statistic says, what would it be?’ We include that quote in the press release,” he says.
Then, care is taken to avoid overstating the findings. “As an independent public-service organisation, trust is our number-one currency. The challenge for us is to report on the picture as it stands, or has been, without fear or favour. Often people will want to speculate about the future, but that’s not territory we will go into.”
In the wake of the EU referendum, any numbers related to the British economy face intense media scrutiny. When the ONS published first-quarter GDP figures that assessed economic growth after the result, “to boil those numbers down into a phrase that helped people tell the story was a hard task”, says Lines.
Seeking a straightforward narrative, the team opted for “the economy has not fallen at the first hurdle”. “That phrase was widely reported. It was politically neutral, impartial but authoritative,” he explains, pointing out that the collaboration between statisticians and communicators is “crucial”.
For most organisations, it’s important to be seen as politically neutral, especially after the Brexit vote – but newsworthy issues frequently overlap with political party concerns. The key thing is to flag the danger with others working on the communication and make sure your messaging reflects events, without suggesting what a government policy could be.
The need to remain impartial could affect the commentary opportunities you take up too. “If you’re looking to create more of an image in the media, you can’t afford to be too picky,” says World First’s Cook. “But, if your company wants to take a politically neutral tone, [a spokesperson could] appear on BBC News about day-to-day events; if it’s for a report linked to a statement by an MP, such as Theresa May, you might want to pull them back from that.”
Choose a spokesperson
To make sure you stay on message, pick a spokesperson who is close to your story, rather than the most senior person in your organisation. At the ONS, the statistician who leads on a particular topic becomes the spokesperson for it: “They will be able to explain any points that arise clearly and help journalists understand them,” says Lines.
As well as appearing in the press, these spokespeople should also be at the forefront of your social media strategy. The ONS promotes its statisticians’ Twitter handles in the run-up to the release of its publications, while Cook personally mans the World First Twitter account.
The effect is to position an organisation as an active player in any debate and enable comms to stimulate business development. “If you are constantly listening and engaging, you cultivate a corporate image as someone who is personable and open to talking – not just a robot at the end of a keyboard,” says Cook.
Strike the right tone
No-one wants to listen to a bore, so encourage your people to let their personality shine through. “Experts can often barricade their message in jargon that doesn’t appeal to the average person on the street,” says Cook, who was challenged during his first BBC appearance to answer the question: “Why should the people at home care?”
“You must couch your expertise in terms that people want to hear about,” he says. “For example, explain that, if sterling is up 1%, we expect that to affect the price of petrol – and cheese!”
This makes advice unique, easy to understand and, therefore, sought-after. “If I can continue to make what is going on in the economy ‘real’, and not just echo the noises coming from Westminster, or the noises coming from the City, I would anticipate a high level of media engagement continuing. If you can get your opinion across in a well-articulated manner, people will want to ask you about what is going on,” says Cook.
But be prepared to fail
Publishing insight or commentary carries reputational risk. Just ask the organisations that base their business on making forecasts. When strategy consultancy Populus incorrectly predicted that 55% of voters in the 2016 UK referendum would opt to remain in the European Union, the outcome was nothing short of “embarrassing”, says its chief executive, Michael Simmonds.
Therefore, his advice for those who want to incorporate expert commentary or thought leadership into their communications plan is to opt for transparency at all times. “If you’re a company that chooses to give advice to people based on data, you need to be clear when you make mistakes. If you pretend that your figures are right when any sort of common sense could detect that they aren’t, people aren’t going to trust you or regard you as an expert.”
When the referendum result was announced, Populus promptly issued a 1,100-word statement on its website, in which it admitted that its prediction was “wrong” no fewer than five times. It boldly conceded that, compared to competitors, the poll was “furthest from the result” and “more wrong still”, while detailing the erroneous survey methodology.
Counterintuitively, this honesty can fuel client engagement and boost reputation. For Populus, “clients have taken the view that it’s interesting; we’ve had a number of discussions about the reasons why we think the prediction poll was wrong”, says Simmonds.
The message to the wider market? Give expert commentary a go. “Reflecting on an error that has been made can still be a good opportunity to expose serious thinking and the intelligent, inquiring people who work for your organisation,” he says.
Image courtesy of flickr user radcliffe dacanay
This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2017.