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Thought Leadership, Trumped?

Quite some time ago, I wrote a Bloom Group blog titled “Why Corporate Writing Stinks.” One of the reasons I suggested was fear – the fear among experts that ideas expressed in plain English, without jargon, hyphenates and buzzwords, might be deemed too simple and therefore not worthy of being called thought leadership.

Today, a new fear has arisen that also threatens the quality of thought leadership writing.

I was speaking with a client last week and we wandered into a discussion about the impact of soon-to-be President Donald Trump’s tweets. This was after the President-elect took to Twitter to take Boeing and Lockheed Martin to task for the cost of their planes, and criticized Ford and General Motors for planning to build plants and cars in Mexico. While running for President, Trump also used Twitter to attack T-Mobile, Macy’s, and Amazon for a variety of perceived sins.

I suggested this use of Twitter to twist arms and move markets might form the basis for an article about what CEOs and companies could do if they found themselves in the President-elect’s 140-character crosshairs.

Maybe, the expert said. But, she added, we need to be careful. We wouldn’t want to end up on an enemies list.

Maybe she was joking. Maybe she wasn’t. I wasn’t sure. I’m not sure she knew herself.

That brought back memories. I’m old enough to remember President Nixon’s enemies list. (If you’re curious, here it is.) When the list became public, it unnerved a lot of people; for some, being named was a point of pride. But although he had a list, Nixon didn’t have Twitter. When Nixon wanted to go after a perceived enemy, he needed to enlist help, act secretly, or go through a very few media outlets and deal with editors who acted as gatekeepers and filters. He couldn’t apply social pressure just by grabbing a microphone and speaking loudly. But today the President-elect has a magic microphone. He only need pick up his Android and instantly over 19 million followers will get the message. And then news outlets must report on the tweets because … well, because he’s the President-elect, and whatever he says is news.

This is a new fear that may degrade the quality of business writing, and thought leadership. If thought leaders think they need to avoid topics or points of view that might cause President Trump to reach for his trusty Android to criticize them, their ability to develop “novel, practical and proven answers to complex or seemingly intractable business issues,” as my colleague Bob Buday wrote in “The Seven Hallmarks of Compelling Intellectual Capital,” and give “detailed, honest descriptions of business problems” – that is, tell the truth – will be constrained. And that bodes ill for the discipline and practice of thought leadership.

As Americans increasingly get their information from their social media feeds, and internet news sites become more partisan and untrustworthy while chasing clicks, thought leaders, if they want their articles to be more than mere marketing collateral, could do worse than to embrace the mission that New York Times founder Adolph Ochs once defined as speaking to the public “impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

If thought leaders won’t do that, who will?