Businesses and organisations which value their reputation have long realised the importance of positioning themselves as thought leaders. Effective projection of thought leadership enables businesses to show that their expertise is driven by a deep understanding of their own work and a considered appreciation of the marketplace. When backed by primary research and reputation tracking businesses can ensure that thought leadership is original, incisive and in tune with their customers’ needs.
The smartest businesses understand thought leadership and have learnt how to deploy it effectively. This is especially true in markets where long-term trends force businesses to plan for the future. The growing significance of the green agenda from the 1990s onwards forced energy companies to position themselves at the forefront of research into alternative forms of energy – and to use academic-style thought leadership to reinforce the work they were doing. Similarly, for businesses operating in markets that their own customers struggle to understand thought leadership is a vital tool for myth-busting and educating. The smarter financial services companies have taken the time to explain opaque financial engineering to their customers. Of course thought leadership is not without risk – if businesses bend the evidence to their commercial advantage they could do serious reputational damage. The best practitioners know this and partner with reputable research bodies to produce original and innovative work.
A more recent development is the move by businesses, as well as charities and other bodies, to use thought leadership to drive their government relations strategy. The impact of longer-term trends has been felt here too: thought leadership driven by future foresight is helping businesses to identify challenges decades ahead as well as shaping the current policy agenda. As governments in the developed world are turning to the private sector to deliver their programmes the old hustle for subsidies and kick-backs is making way to more thoughtful engagement. Government budgets are shrinking and the private sector is using its expertise to deliver more for less, taking on the risk and using thought leadership to market its capabilities. Government relations strategies are increasingly looking to work with the grain of the policy agenda and are wary of being seen blocking or undermining policies which have the broad support of their own customers.
Moves on the part of government towards more transparency from town hall to Whitehall have also changed the rules of the game. The business end of public affairs has changed. Registers of interests and declarations of hospitality are now expected by the public bringing public affairs engagement into the open. A good lunch or tickets to the opera can no longer win access to decision makers and government relations practitioners know that neither the politicians nor the public will stand for it any longer.
Thought leadership, by contrast, offers a palatable route to constructive dialogue with government. Businesses that invest their own resources and expertise in understanding the policy challenges of the day can contribute to the debate and build relationships with their political stakeholders. Thought leadership must be still be of a high standard – when independent think-tanks are generating pages of copy it is no use collating data and claiming to be innovative. And recommendations to government must be based on hard evidence – the straw polls so favoured by advertising companies will not cut ice with civil servants who understand their own policy areas.
In the 1990s businesses understood that their customers were living in a world where they had access to more choice and more information than ever before and moved to position themselves as thought leaders. The new political landscape will see thought leadership become an essential part of public affairs and those businesses for whom government is a customer must harness its potential.