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How Content Directors Can Win the Politics of Thought Leadership

I think it’s fair to say that this season’s presidential contest has become historically unpleasant and weird, or weirdly unpleasant.

While the intensity of the weirdness, and unpleasantness, may have surprised some, the fact that politics is rough surprises no one. Most people consider politics something bad, something to avoid. That’s why politicians always claim not to be politicians. It plays well on the hustings.

But whenever people need to work together, there’s politics. Avoiding it is impossible. Therefore, your goal should be to get good at it.

That’s not always easy. As the fabulous late-19th century misanthrope Ambrose Bierce wrote in The Devil’s Dictionary, politics is: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”

We frequently see this strife in the production of thought leadership articles. And sometimes that strife sabotages them.

I recently saw personal interest, masquerading as principle, sink a good article because the experts in one practice thought the piece, written by and for another practice, should have been written by them, for their clients, with quite a different point of view.

Who got caught in the middle of these interests and egos? The person in charge of producing the firm’s thought leadership content.

I always feel sorry for whoever is in charge of thought leadership at professional services firms, be it a content director or CMO. While the firm’s experts are advising business leaders about operations or strategies, technologies or taxes, and earning millions for the firm, the poor content director is spending the firm’s money on writers, editors, and artists to publish articles with a hard-to-prove ROI. Consequently, the content director’s influence lies only in his ability to persuade, to soothe and feed the experts’ often outsized egos, to find common ground. In other words, in his political skills. This is hard, subtle work, and the only thing that makes it easier is having allies.

How do you make allies? In Chicago politics, it’s simple. You slip a wad of bills into an Alderman’s paws. With enough cash, you get allies galore. Unfortunately, that’s not going to work at a professional services firm (and where are you going to find the money, anyway?) A better strategy also borrows from the world of big city politics – all politics, in fact: Doing favors.

What favors can you provide?

The biggest one is to make an expert’s life easier by getting their thoughts published with as little effort on their part as possible.

This means making sure the writers and editors you’ve hired understand that that’s job number one: Doing the heavy lifting. Doing as much as possible while demanding as little as possible of the expert’s time. Remembering that she has a day job that doesn’t include writing articles. Assisting her in developing, refining, and expressing her ideas in a smooth and non-confrontational manner.

If you can find writers and editors who can do all that – and produce strong, successful articles – make sure your expert is aware that you’re the reason everything has worked out so well. You trained these people to look out for her interests. This is how you create an ally at a professional services firm.

Ideally, your ally will be someone with influence (in Chicago, they call it juice) – maybe even the CEO – so that when you find yourself stuck in the middle of a dispute, you can turn to her for help in settling the matter in the way you want, preserving the integrity of both the article and the process.  

No one really can tell senior people at a professional services firm what to do, often not even the leadership. But by helping your experts get published far and wide, burnishing their reputations (and, yes, feeding their egos), you can make them feel kindly toward you, perhaps kindly enough that you can call in a favor or two when you need it.

Allies can make it easier to resolve the strife that emerges from the clash of personal interests, enabling you to produce the quality thought leadership content you know will help your firm. It will also make your job more pleasant and productive.

That’s winning at politics, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.