A trustworthy method for the new thought leadership model

Dilbert: Dear God No

The humour in this Dilbert cartoon – the boss talking about blogging his thoughts about his business when in reality it will be his employee doing the thinking and the writing – is a simple but good reminder that expressing opinion online is a lot about authenticity.

You may have someone suggesting topics to you that reflect and are linked to your business objectives – a key role of the communicator as strategic counsellor and adviser – but if something’s published as a blog post with your name on it, authentic is not what it is if the thoughts and the words are by someone else and that fact isn’t disclosed somewhere.

Expressing authentic opinion online can also be a valuable use of your time whether you’re the boss or an employee. The time you invest in sharing what you think – a post you write or a comment you leave as you join someone else’s conversation –  can provide a powerful and credible demonstration of your knowledge and opinion about a topic and your willingness and ability to engage with others in discussing it.

If people like what you say – which can be in audio or video form, not only in the written word – they might come back for more. Or they might disagree and have their own opinions on what you posted. Either way, they might talk about your opinion, and share their own opinion of it with their own communities, online and offline.

I was reminded of these facts and others today when I read “2013: the bells tolls for the old thought leadership model,” a post by Fiona Czerniawska of Source, a UK-based provider of research about the management consulting market in Europe and the Middle East.

Especially if you’re as tired (or as cynical) as I am in hearing the phrase “thought leadership” parroted all the time, Czerniawska’s post is a thought-provoking read, and begins with this:

“If a consulting firm hasn’t written about it, we assume it doesn’t know anything about it.”

That off-the-cuff comment which we recently heard from a major buyer of consulting services is, in a nutshell, the thought leadership story of 2013.

From other research we already know that thought leadership has been playing an increasingly important role in short-listing decisions, but it’s always been expressed in positive terms, along the lines of “If a firm has written a good report or article on a subject, then we’ll be more inclined to get them to come in and talk to us.”  This comment sounds much more draconian: you’ve either got the expertise – in which case you’ll be writing about it – or you haven’t.

And it ups the ante for the consulting industry.  It confirms thought leadership as consulting firms’ most powerful marketing weapon, but it also means that thought leadership and strategy have to be far more closely aligned.  Thought leadership ceases to be something done in an ad hoc, fragmented fashion: success won’t come from serendipity (someone just happening to write about the right topic at the right time) but from intent.

The post is written from the perspective of the consulting industry. Yet I believe it is valid counsel to anyone in business  – especially the leader or senior executives  – looking for a competitive advantage (and who isn’t looking for that?).

According to the 2013 Trust Barometer from the Edelman PR firm, we’re in a time when trust in the leaders of organizations is severely diminished and in continuing, even trending, decline. You have only to look at a business sector like financial services and banking to see why. Where trust is rising is in subject-matter experts, academics, regular employees – people who are perceived to be authentic and transparent in their intentions.

Clearly this strongly suggests that what people look to trust is authentic opinion where the opinion-maker can be verified (hence the significance of Google’s author rank announced recently).

Read my blogNot to mention the measurable benefits from your name (and that of your organization) along with the topic on which you shared an opinion showing up in search results. If there’s one thing Google loves, it’s frequently-updated searchable content on websites (blogs are great) that will get indexed more often.

It seems to me that writing and publishing a blog post that sets out what you think about a topic is one of the easiest – and pleasurable – uses of your time that can put you at the heart of discussion, debate and people’s attention.

This also brings to my mind a workshop about blogging that I led at the Financial Times’ Digital Learning Week 2012 employee event last October, and some key elements I emphasised to the participants:

  1. Blogging is about the content not the platform. The primary point is your content not where it’s published.
  2. You’re telling a story not writing a press release or a sales brochure. Write informally, conversationally, avoiding jargon, and with passion.
  3. Be selfless and generous in your references to others. Attribute, cite, link.
  4. Disclose any conflict of interest. If in doubt, always disclose.
  5. Make your content eminently shareable. Eg, enable sharing buttons, make your headline concise enough that it’s simple to tweet it. Make the place your content is published on easy to use: a blog, in other words, not a corporate website.
  6. Be clear on your strategy and the measurable goal you wish to achieve. As Fiona Czerniawska wrote in her post I mentioned earlier, this isn’t about serendipity but about clear business intent.

And if you want a smoother ride on the road that can take you to the destination of trust, don’t forget – authentic is the name of your game.

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