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Thursday, 28 July 2011

Good thinking: using Thought Leadership to engage government

By Charles Pitt, Account manager, ReputationInc

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.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

NOTW crisis: Can communicators re-spin their own approach to PR?

Media’s plummeting reputation places further importance on holistic reputation management

By Maita Soukup, Account Manager, ReputationInc

When reading through ReputationInc’s company credentials during my first week on board, a single sentence made me stop and take note. “PR and brand comms are all about talk, and being heard. Reputation management is about shaping the conversation.”

And what better way to be heard, than through the national press? Who among us isn’t familiar with the scene of a few PR agency folks sitting around a boardroom earnestly defending heavy retainers in pure column inches, usually replete with their key prop - the coverage book*.

But, with the popular press suffering an all-time low in public confidence, how much are those column inches worth? What does independent editorial endorsement mean, if the public has lost its faith in the fourth estate? Where does this leave those communicators who (through either strategy or proximity), have come to see the media as their primary stakeholder?

The NOTW scandal has further blurred the ethical lines that are meant to divide government, media, and business interests, and the public seems increasingly unwilling to buy any of it. The tabloid press in general, and its News International titles in particular, are certain to suffer the worst from the full revelations of the phone-hacking scandal. And while titles like the Guardian and the New York Times have emerged as the champions of truth and ethical journalism, bad impressions last long and reach far. Any reason for increased scepticism over media information-gathering tactics seems will live long in the public's minds.

To survive through the current public mood, communicators can simply no longer rely on good relationships with editors and their hacks to somehow safeguard their public reputation. Maintaining these relationships is still business critical, but businesses seeking to build or alter their public perception would be wise to cast their net further, and new relationships outside of the popular press.

Consider for a moment taking just half of the strategic importance some organisations put into building media relationships, and diverting that focus to other important stakeholders; like community groups, industry coalitions, employees, to regulators, bloggers, or academics (just to name a few).

Shaping conversations with all those public forums that intersect with a business's wider goals is certainly more nuanced, and perhaps more complex than courting media. However, it is ultimately more rewarding. Communicators should seize this opportunity to re-focus away from traditional media and instead innovate new routes for transparent and honest engagement with their wider constituencies.

* As satisfying as it is to relish in one’s media successes, come on communicators, deep down we all know today’s survey story or brilliant photo stunt is tomorrow’s chip wrapping.