Banner Image

The Essentials

“Do we need a thought leadership campaign?”

If you work in public affairs, you’ve heard that question many, many times.  It’s tough to answer. Thought leadership is hard to define, harder to execute, has uncertain returns and is difficult to quantify. Done right, however, it can capture the public’s imagination, build your reputation and inspire people to action.

So what is thought leadership? What are good examples of thought leadership effectively deployed? How do we measure impact? We interviewed more than 50 leading public affairs professionals, all of whose organizations have engaged in thought-leadership campaigns. Here’s what we found.

Defining Thought Leadership in Public Affairs

Thought leadership is a means for connecting oneself or an organization to an idea, issue, cause, market or community. At a functional level, it involves publicly demonstrating expertise and contextualizing and packaging concepts in a way that resonates with a key community or audience.

At a higher level, however, thought leadership is a means of inspiration. It does more than inform an audience. It moves them. It convinces them that they should think more broadly about an issue and consider other points of view. Oftentimes it recommends solutions to pressing societal problems. A successful thought-leadership campaign may not persuade everyone to agree with you but it does cause others to agree you need a seat at the table when important issues are being addressed.

Core Tenets

Core Tenets

Whether you’re working for a small non-profit or a Fortune 100 Company, a powerful and impactful thought-leadership campaign has six core attributes:

  1. Grounded in expertise: Drawing on research or extensive experience working in your field.

  2. Solution-oriented: Offering smart answers to problems.

  3. Conversational: Inviting dialogue, which makes the campaign an entry point for a relationship.

  4. Fresh: Standing apart from the communication of others.

  5. Authentic: Consistent with your values and voice.

  6. Ongoing: Refreshed regularly as ideas are refined to incorporate new points of view.

At a time when everyone — corporate leaders, the news media, politicians, advocates and average consumers — are having a hard time making sense of the world, a well-executed thought-leadership campaign can serve both as a guidebook and guidepost.

Credible thought leaders, whether they post regularly on social media, write for a news site, record a podcast or broadcast videos, can earn the trust of a skeptical public. They signal what to read or watch, who to listen to and, by extension, what to believe.

Before we begin

Before We Begin, Answer the Key Questions

Most organizations have the potential to become thought leaders: They have unique expertise. They know steps that could be taken to improve the effectiveness of business and government and address public policy challenges.  They have access to tools necessary to share ideas quickly, widely and affordably. Execution is where things go awry, however. Many companies write in corporate-speak, use predictable talking points or fail to adequately acknowledge other points of view. Or they post their thoughts so irregularly that audiences lose interest.

Successful organizations ask themselves several key questions before engaging in a thought leadership effort:

  • Do we need a thought-leadership effort? Is it additive? What’s our purpose? Would we make a unique contribution?
  • In our efforts to be fresh, authentic and timely, will we expose ourselves to criticism and do more harm than good?
  • How do we reach the right people? Who should write or speak on behalf of the company?
  • How do we measure if our communications are well-received?
  • When is the right time to speak up? Who should write or speak on behalf of the company?

The following case studies will help demonstrate how leading organizations answer these questions and becoming highly respected thought leaders.