Thought Leadership in a World of ‘Alternative Facts’

There’s a new dynamic in Washington, D.C., in which critical issues are arguably debated with unsupported claims and promulgated by sources who intentionally refuse to correct them, while the media is denounced with open contempt at the highest levels. Even for organizations not directly involved in politics, it’s worth wondering whether the ground rules for thought leaders are changing – and changing dramatically.

This is an important question at Greentarget, where we promote and protect our clients’ brands and reputations. Because what many of our clients sell is their own intellectual capital, we spend a good portion of each day helping them participate skillfully in influential conversations on the belief that their ideas, if articulated clearly and disseminated effectively, will drive meaningful interactions and business.

But even if Washington has changed (dramatically) in a relatively short period of time, I’d argue the thought leadership rules we regularly preach to our clients haven’t changed; in fact, they are more important than ever.

We tell our clients that the core tenets of basic decency must continue to guide their thought leadership. And we believe adherence to the canons listed below will distinguish their messages and help them truly contribute to a smarter conversation.

  • Be honest.
  • Be smart.
  • Be kind.

These rules are remarkably similar to what my wife and I tell our four children about how they should live their lives. Here’s how they apply in a changing PR world:

Be honest: In recent weeks, both the PR Council and Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) have issued statements reaffirming their commitment to their respective codes of ethics. The parallel for thought leaders is to remain true to yourself and your message. Do not engage in petty arguments that cannot be decided. A true leader frames an issue authentically and then offers objective insights backed by facts to persuade listeners. Molding a narrative that runs contrary to verified facts or tries to ignore important questions in an attempt to promote a different story destroys reputations.

Be smart: Interjecting yourself into an emotional, sideways argument has always been dangerous. It is more so now. Thought leaders must decide when to engage and when to just observe. If your narrative won’t be heard over the noise, then don’t waste your breath. And although certain traditional outlets hold influence, perhaps pick another venue for your message. New outlets, such as Axios, or social media news pages, like Dan Rather’s News and Guts, are launching daily in response to a void they perceive in the current coverage. They offer new audiences and demographics. They also offer opportunities to place owned content that can be viewed directly by readers. And, of course, in today’s world self-publishing can often be as effective as traditional media. Savvy thought leaders will be more selective moving forward.

Be kind: The best thought leaders must engage with open minds and empathetic ears. Conversations should be idea exchanges, not shouting matches. Thought leaders must rise above the current vitriol in order to be heard. Civility in the face of contempt is a perceptual victory and positions a thought leader’s words for greater acceptance.

Many voices are speaking out with strong points of views on the issues facing our country. For true thought leaders, it is important in these times to distinguish opinion from influence. Opinions persuade through passion and willpower. Influence motivates through ideas, empathy and facts. At Greentarget we focus our clients on thoughtful influence because we believe that is ultimately at the core of leadership – intellectual or otherwise.