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What to consider before starting a thought leadership campaign

10 December 2013

A thought leadership campaign is more than just a vanity exercise, portraying your charity as an expert in its field can help achieve organisational objectives.

Most charities do fantastic work showcasing what they do by telling stories of lives changed or highlighting issues they wish to resolve. This has powerful emotional resonance and is one way to demonstrate impact as well as understanding. But perhaps more charities could confidently proclaim their own staff expertise and opinions on matters of importance and share why and how their approach is the best. Demonstrating thought leadership can be particularly powerful with potential partners and policy makers but it’s also a way to enhance reputation with donors, service users and can attract media attention.

“What is your charity’s strongest area of expertise?” This question may seem so obvious that you skate past it. Here are some charity thought leadership pointers to help you think strategically about this question.

1. Carve out a subject or issue niche

This is the most important starting point and no simple task. Hone in and define what you’re really good at and what drives your organisation. Check what other charities are doing and decide whether to take them on in the same territory or find your own ‘sweet spot’. Young Minds does this very well, and not just in their ‘About Us’ section.

2. Find a senior figurehead to take the lead

If your thought leadership area is purely a marketing initiative it won’t fly. Your senior leadership needs to be genuinely involved, and business decisions should reinforce your expert positioning.

The spokesperson needn’t be a chief exec or even an employee. A lead researcher may be the right person to deliver thought leadership. Action Against Cancer’s positioning is credible and impressive through its use of Professor Justin Stebbing as a spokesperson.

3. You snooze, you lose

Be prepared to be fleet of foot. That way, it will be your opinions that gain traction rather than tagging onto someone else’s coat tails. Some organisations stifle their own ability to be heard by putting burdensome process in the way of spokespeople.

4. Plan ahead

A frequent flow of information is important or you’ll lose followers. You’ll want to plan ahead, coordinate and schedule your communication flow across individual departments. Your goal should be to create a shared editorial or content calendar.

5. Have a clear way of measuring your thought leadership

Is it about driving visits to your website, downloads of white papers, the number of people attending an event or signing a petition?

6. A modest budget will go far

One of the biggest advantages of PR (earned exposure) is that it provides great value compared to advertising. However, if you’re able to set aside some budget you can amplify your expertise by producing well-designed materials, hosting events or by boosting the reach of social media posts with targeted sponsored updates.

7. Go easy on the hard sell

This is about winning hearts and minds – gaining loyalty and reputation by being expert and providing information. References to fundraising should be subtle in most cases.

8. Don’t forget your owned channels

Make sure you put as much effort into your owned channels as your earned media. Consistency is key. Don’t grab someone’s attention then lose it by getting the basics wrong elsewhere.  StepChange, the debt charity, has built a strong expert positioning on its website by providing practical tools.

9. Be in engagement mode

Remember that you want to capture the attention of others, not simply spout forth in a one-way stream. So be open to contribution and feedback.

10. Hang out with your audience

Identify who you wish to target and then figure out where they congregate. This can vary by age, profession and location. Bear in mind people are in different “modes” when in different virtual and real life locations.

11. Equip your staff to speak for you and with you

The flipside to leading from the top is that your expertise will seem shallow or inauthentic if it’s not imbued in all staff. Internal communications is key.

12. Keep up the momentum

In the field of expertise, you need to keep walking just to keep pace. Your experts need the time and space to continue to push out the frontiers of knowledge in their specialist area.

Julie Kangisser

director, Think Communications

Julie is a director at Think Communications which specialises in making expertise and opinions engaging. Her career has seen her deliver issues-based campaigns and thought leadership for non-profits such as Barrow Cadbury Trust and Jobcentre Plus as well as major businesses including BT, Aviva and Shell. She started out as a journalist at BBC News.