David Line | June 14th, 2020

What is “thought leadership”? It might be hard to define, but to borrow Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment about pornography, I know it when I see it. And after years in the field, I like to think I also know when it’s done well. Some examples of thought leadership are well-executed enough to serve as a benchmark for all of us.

Our agreements with clients (and of course, our characteristic modesty) often prevent us from championing our own work. But I thought it might be instructive to highlight a bit of genuine thought leadership created by someone else that excels in just about every way, and look into what lessons it holds.

Which brings me to Edelman’s Trust Barometer. (Full disclosure: we don’t work with Edelman, and no one at n/n is affiliated with them. Trust us.)

Why is it so good? Let me count some of the ways:

  1. It hinges on a simple and powerful concept. In an era of information overload, trust is increasingly a sought-after and hard-to-win commodity that can be connected to an astonishing variety of crucial corporate and social topics. Most firms won’t be able to own so broad a concept, of course, but they should nevertheless look for a linchpin theme or approach that underpins their commentary and gives them the latitude to explore its interaction with more specific topics.
  2. It’s based on a huge amount of original, proprietary data – in the 2020 core edition they surveyed over 34,000 people (and they followed this with another 13,200 in a Covid-19 update). This allows them to produce detailed reports for a range of individual markets without losing credibility, rather than lumping together findings that say broad things about no one group of people in particular.
  3. The way Edelman writes about its findings skilfully balances social commentary with commercial reality, something that has become a sine qua non for many companies in our current troubled times. As a PR agency (sorry, “global communications firm”) Edelman by default puts trust – specifically, its cultivation among its clients’ stakeholders – at the centre of its business. But it is not afraid to recognise and point out the broader social implications of its findings. In the 2020 core edition (published pre-Covid) the top finding centred on trust and inequality. “The informed public—wealthier, more educated, and frequent consumers of news—remain far more trusting of every institution than the mass population… There are now a record eight markets showing all-time-high gaps between the two audiences—an alarming trust inequality.”
  4. Edelman knows the value of simplicity. See this prominent data visualisation (animated on their site, but commendably clear).

    Number of markets with record trust inequality at an all-time high
    Source: Edelman

    Also check out this executive summary: one page, ten findings, none that needs more than a headline and a couple of sentences to convey a powerful point.
  5. They also go deep when they need to – as well as the aforementioned country reports, there’s a top-line results deck (79 pages) and a thoughtful digital booklet (how else to describe it?) on their insights from covering the same issue over the past 20 years.
  6. Which brings me to one of the most important foundations of good thought leadership: it’s repeated regularly. The methodology might have changed since 2000 (the project was conceived in the wake of the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests) but in recent years they’ve settled on an approach that has allowed them to develop an immensely valuable weapon in anyone’s thought leadership arsenal: time-series data.

    Allow me to linger on that a little: why is doing this kind of research repeatedly a good idea? For one, things change. Change, in itself, can be a headline. People trust governments more now than they did in 2012, Edelman said in January, and by May they found that government trust surged a further 11 points to an all-time high of 65 percent, making it the most trusted institution for the first time since they started the study 20 years ago. You could dispute their interpretation of why this change has happened, but they wouldn’t be in a position of authority to talk about it if they only covered the issue once. By extension, if something is done well and regularly, people come to anticipate the next iteration, and talk about it when it lands. Earned media coverage is therefore much easier to accrue.

Admittedly, I don’t have access to any data that might show whether or not Edelman’s (doubtless colossal) investment in this research pays off in terms of increased revenues, or even in greater trust in its brand (which, like that of any PR firm, has weathered a number of controversies). But I would be willing to bet that it does.

Not all wannabe thought leaders will have the budgets to conduct as ambitious a piece of research as this every year; Edelman, after all, has its own analytics subdivision. But for those with ambitions to drive conversations in their own fields, it pays to try to emulate what Edelman is getting right – and to take the time to build a reputation for sterling thought leadership by reinforcing your credibility over the long term.

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