Tuesday 9 October 2012

Thought Leadership: The future of communication or useless jargon?

The contemporary corporate environment has changed considerably over the last few decades. Changes fuelled by increased stakeholder engagement, demand for corporate transparency, constant public scrutiny, and sharpened competition pose several challenges, as well as opportunities for organisations' promotional efforts. Thought leadership and issues led PR are communications strategies that embrace the opportunities, rather than merely reacting to the challenges. Underlying my explicit interest in the approach is the ability to combine all of the above challenges, and proactively present the organisation and its stakeholders with innovative solutions to industry issues.

Online discussion about the definition and practises of though leadership are thriving. However, opinion leaders, professionals, and organisations cannot seem to agree upon what thought leadership actually entails. It is evident that a range of organisations and individuals say that they practice thought leadership, but can they call themselves thought leaders? Does it merely require a strong opinion and a twitter account? Has the term thought leadership been so misused that it is on the verge of losing all meaning and value?

Some commentators are shouting their disapproval of the strategy.  The Economist, for example, recently explained that organisations seek to provide what they annoyingly call “thought leadership”. Whilst disagreeing that thought leadership should be declared useless jargon, I accept that the prevalence of the term in nearly every industry study/ report (e.g. surprisingly The Economist Intelligence Unit) may have tainted the usage and therefore its reputation as a valid corporate communications strategy.  To further explain, thought leadership, as well as other clich├ęd phrases like CSR, is only effective if the organisation is truly committed to that strategy. Thought leadership therefore requires a large amount of internal buy-in and support in order to not only be credible, but to sustain and advance that position. True thought leadership will then turn regular organisational activity into intellectual capital, demonstrating a preeminent industry position and issue ownership. Thought leaders will then effectively become the “go-to-people” in that market. But what are the reputational consequences if the strategy goes wrong? Without any safety warrants, is it worth spending time and resources building this approach?

I believe true thought leadership outlines everything that is required in a current corporate communications strategy. It sets the agenda, it involves stakeholders, and it certainly facilitates industry discussions as I observed yesterday at the TLQ launch by TLG Partners Ltd. Thought leaders recognise that organisations are not just profit-making entities; they are a vital part of the wider community. With this in mind, thought leadership could well become the future of communications, or at least an essential part of it. Perhaps we just have to revaluate the terminology.

Guest post from our IPREX partner Marte Semb Aasmundsen

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