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A guide to thought leadership

It is de rigueur among PR consultants to highlight the need for thought leadership. But the way they approach it is highly diverse. For some this can mean gaining a quote in a seminal article for a high-profile leader. Others see it as producing a one-off report covering industry trends. Rarely is it seen as a cornerstone of long-term reputation building and positioning. 

What then does best practice look like when it comes to thought leadership? First and foremost it has to be research-based. An organisation needs to make a significant commitment in time and resource, potentially for many years. Halifax's house price survey has run successfully for decades. 

Topics must be carefully selected and the finished report should contribute to the wider understanding of a problem or challenge. Deloitte's annual football finance study gives a pertinent view of the value of “the game” and is widely respected.

Any serious study also needs to be undertaken by respected researchers. These relationships help to ensure that studies are fresh and do not clash with the work of competitors. IPSOS MORI undertakes unique polling for HSBC's long-running Future of Retirement report that looks at global trends in how well people are prepared for later life.

Selected topics should also align with an organisation's future plans, the customers they want to speak to and the markets they want to develop. Consequently, long lists can soon be whittled down. McKinsey's “Insights” both inform and paint pictures of emerging business trends in sectors it wants to grow.

Any report must also enjoy senior-level support. A committed CEO who can offer opinions is a highly valuable asset. Meg Whitman, HP's CEO, has long, and publicly, been the champion of its test and iterate thinking that sets aside the quest for perfection.

For communications specialists thought leadership must also appeal to the media and the array of social influencers that are now setting and influencing business opinions. Sheryl Sandberg's personal (rather than the Facebook) manifesto, Lean In, immediately clicked with journalists and influencers. Women, Work and the Will to Lead is still widely referred to and continues to provoke debate. 

Finally, in a digital world where the visual triumphs frequently over the written word, thought leadership needs to be carefully presented, available freely in digital form and allow for recipients to interact with data. Hays Global Skill Index provides an interactive comparison tool for online readers to assemble their own version of the study.

There is more than first meets the eye when developing thought leadership. But when it is well planned and executed it can have a lasting and memorable impact.

Article written by Kevin Read, chairman of PR firm Bell Pottinger

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