Thought leadership PR: Why original thought isn't enough

Many 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 PR’ on one issue or another.

Thought leadership was all about being the undisputed clever clogs in a 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.”

But my enthusiasm for standard thought leadership PR is definitely waning.

Original ideas are not enough

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 a PR campaign.

The traditional view among many PR folk is that a thought leadership campaign requires:

  1. A thought (ideally a new one that can be branded)
  2. Clarity of communications (and lots of it, ie. big budgets)
  3. 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. Parts of the media love this too, as it can provide an entertaining source of strong personalities with strong views.

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. Those influencers turn out not to be very influential after all.

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.

Changing the world through collaboration

Obviously one cannot claim to be a thought leader simply by virtue of being the first, biggest or longest-established firm in a 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 infographic 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.

My view is therefore growing that it’s not just the intellectual capital that matters, but an organisation’s overall connectedness and willingness to share. Leadership in action, not just in name.

And that means a generosity of spirit, allowing those ideas to be tested in the real world, and sharing the lessons learned. It demands a PR and communications approach that is much more open, devolved, social and sustained. It is driven by values and vision, and touches on all corporate behaviours.


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