Too often thought leadership initiatives are dismissed as advocating for vested interests. Public affairs needs to help organisations overcome those preconceptions and the easiest way to do this is to encourage greater transparency.
Very often claims of vested interests are made by opponents of the new area of policy. But that doesn’t make it any less relevant or damaging. Take the recent example of a story in the Sunday Times. It recently claimed that ‘Lobbyists behind attack on green belt’ accusing organisations of running ‘front operations’. Even a quick read of the ethics guides for the CIPR and PRCA show that this type of activity is not permitted but it was the apparent lack of transparency that seemed to be the root of the criticism.
The paper’s evidence? Well it was that the thought leadership was published by think tanks with those paying for the reports, or involved in other similar reports, not making clear that they worked with developers.
Those involved would claim that nothing was hidden, and there wasn’t, but if the standards of transparency need to be higher then why not consider raising the bar proactively to prevent such attacks in future?
Both sides in debates such as these have some good ideas and it is up to Government to act as the final arbiter. However, the portrayal of confrontation and a perceived ‘dust up’ between the two ‘opposing’ sides gets the Government off the hook. They get to avoid making decisions one way or the other. That invariably means those advocating ‘no change’ win out.
Anything that allows opponents to easily criticise the work without actually having to deal with the substantive points raised is a missed opportunity.
So this issue is focused on being clear, open and transparent. But this comes into other aspects of thought leadership and the approach as well.
- Be less reticent about involvement in the work – being prepared to openly stand beside the work rather than letting others make the running.
- Consider doing your own research – there may be very good reasons for working with an outside organisation, but is there anything wrong with directly commissioning your own work and launching it as such? That would certainly represent a major change for some and will not be right for all but it would mean that the organisation leads the debate.
- Utilise the experts that you have – too often the ‘outsourcing’ of research can mean that valuable internal expertise is not always considered. The more that they can, either directly (your own work) or indirectly (working with an outside body), the better. It will also deliver more advocates for the outcome of the thought leadership.
- Have a wider thought leadership programme – this should take in a range of relevant issues to demonstrate that you take debate and policy development seriously. When an organisation parachutes in on a single topic, which is at best ‘very core’ to its operations, then it becomes much easier to criticise or ignore.
- Draw on a range of ideas – the best thought leadership work will consider both sides of the argument and may even sometimes be clear in accepting the arguments of opponents. Again, this is best achieved over a period of time, rather than a single, one-off piece of work.
Think tanks remain the go-to outlet for many for constructive policy ideas. At best they ably combine research skills with political acumen, the ability to generate an audience and deliver links into relevant policy audiences. However, economic consultancies now offer another option and academic departments provide a further opportunity. Whilst appreciating that I am making a sweeping generalisation, the academic work tends to be well, more academic, in nature and not always of most use to policy-makers. But in a post-Brexit environment of much tighter funding for higher education and with less research money being available, then these departments will get smarter at really offering what is needed for thought leadership and government engagement.
Fundamentally, if you are prepared to put the thought leadership out there then you need to be prepared to stand at the front of the work, not partly hidden in the shadows.