About 10 years ago, at the height of the success of the big city PR agencies (one of whom I worked for at the time), almost every proposal document promised the potential new client the opportunity to gain a glistening new reputation and acres of media coverage for its ‘thought leadership’ on one issue or another. I can’t tell you how many new business pitches that won for us.
Thought leadership was all about being the undisputed clever clogs in your niche market. As commentators at the Henley Management College put it: "with intellectual capital at a premium, being recognised for the highest levels of knowledge and expertise is the holy grail of many professions."
Even since, whenever I came across something really exciting and new that I thought could reframe the way the media or industry looks on something, I still tended to use the phrase to explore with clients about what might be possible.
But my enthusiasm for standard 'thought leadership PR’ is definitely waning.
First, it’s awfully easy to over-promise. Don't get me wrong: we're fortunate to have no shortage of clients with original ideas and expertise by the bucket-load. But genuine thought leadership – genuine leadership, in fact – is not something easily created through the use of PR.
My suspicions were reinforced by an FT article I spotted late last year:
“The phrase ought to be banned, and anyone caught using it locked away and left to reflect on the stupidity of their actions. Not everyone can be a leader. It follows that not everyone can be a thought leader either. But that does not stop many professional services firms from claiming that they (alone) offer thought leadership on certain issues…”
And that may also explain why increasingly I think the standard thought leadership PR approach may actually not work very well.
The traditional view among many PR folk is that a thought leadership campaign requires:
- A thought (ideally a new one that can be branded)
- Clarity of communications (and lots of it, ie. big budgets)
- And authenticity (it’s got to ring true with the key stakeholders)
It is trumpeted using every tool in the PR toolkit with the aim of transforming an organisation's reputation, ensuring its expertise is well known and so attracting commercial reward and recognition galore.
Standard thought leadership PR is also usually focused on the personal - implemented through boosting the profile of one or two company spokespeople (preferably chairmen or CEOs) who take to the podium and claim credit for the Big Idea. Much of the media love this too, as it provides an entertaining source of strong personalities with strong views (or “any old fool in possession of an ego and a blog”, as Lucy Kellaway would say).
For some people this approach also links well with the ideas in Malcolm Gladwell's book 'The Tipping Point', and his 'Law of the Few' - the idea that a small group of influencers can spark a much bigger change or social phenomenon. In short, perceived thought leadership and high level influence leading to fundamental change in the business or social environment.
But the reality is that a lot of effort goes into thought leadership PR that actually achieves not very much at all - certainly not the sort of change that we would all like to claim. I suspect there are a lot of companies out there that are rather disappointed by the long-term impact of their so-called 'thought leadership' campaigns.
Obviously you cannot claim to be thought leaders simply by virtue of being the first, biggest or longest-established firm in your sector. (In my experience, the most original thought often comes from the sharp sightedness of the new kids on the block, or from the initial creative and often confrontational juxtaposition of teams that might not otherwise work together.)
Nor is it enough to offer an expert opinion on, say, water efficiency or waste management in construction, back it up with a survey among a client group and a White Paper to download from your website, hold an event and claim to be the thought leaders on this aspect of environmental sustainability.
It’s certainly not about coming up with a new piece of jargon, a nice logo or fancy graphic to package ideas differently.
Like the best leaders generally, genuine thought leaders do something beyond showing off their cleverness or marketing wizardry. They change the world by bringing others with them, forming collaborations and partnerships to bring their vision alive and to make it real.
Corporate reputations are changed through having new ideas, yes, but not by concentrating it all around a couple of corporate celebrities. It is about a generosity of spirit, allowing those ideas to be tested in the real world, sharing the lessons learned and utilising a communications strategy that is much more open and devolved (ie. less centrally controlled by the boss).
My view is therefore growing that it's not just the intellectual capital that matters, but an organisation's overall connectedness.
Let's take a look at one aspect of this...
Remarkable research findings reported in the New Scientist last month show that our emotions and behaviours may be more heavily influenced by others than we previously thought – even by people we have never even met or heard of. To summarise, it suggests that:
"...we are beholden to the moods of friends of friends, and of friends of friends of friends - people three degrees of separation away from us whom we have never met, but whose disposition can pass through our social network like a virus."
The effects of 'empathetic mimicry' are thought to explain how happiness or depression can be 'caught' from others not in our immediate social circle. Looking at the ways social norms are spread is also helping scientists to understand how to change the behaviours of whole communities, such as tackling smoking or obesity (maybe even one day triggering a mass epiphany for one planet living?).
One part of the New Scientist article caught my eye in particular, quoting the controversial work of Duncan Watts at Columbia University. It shows that "seeding localised social groups with certain ideas or behaviours can lead to the ideas cascading across entire global networks."
As the article points out:
"This contradicts the notion - promoted by the author Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and others - that social epidemics depend on a few key influential individuals from whom everyone else takes their cue. It doesn't ring true, argues Watts, because such 'influentials' typically interact with only a few people. The key for the spread of anything, he says... is a critical mass of interconnected individuals who influence one another."
If this is true, the role of Web 2.0 in an organisation's communications activities also becomes incredibly important.
Admittedly, the research has not yet been done into whether actions or feelings can spread via the digital world as powerfully as they do in physical communities. I suspect it would probably be much easier to measure this contagion in a consumer market than in a construction industry group.
But if it is possible to seed new ideas and achieve widespread attitudinal or behavioural change through social media, then it’s time to dust off that company policy on Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools and take a fresh look at what people are allowed and encouraged to do.
It may be that each of your people's individual relationships, social networks and their online conversations on Twitter, through blogs, discussion boards and the like could be a much more effective route for your organisation to achieve genuine thought leader status and tangible results than the old PR approach.