How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Guerilla Thought Leadership: An Introduction

It’s incredible to me that so many NGOs, research centers and academic institutions still prevent their research staffers — particularly junior researchers — from doing public scholarship and trying to become thought leaders.

After all, it’s not as if the world desperately needs less research-based insight — especially from new voices that might give us fresh perspectives and solutions on all the challenges that collectively threaten to overwhelm us.

In most cases, these organizations and institutions don’t restrict thought leadership from their researchers as a stated policy. Instead, they discourage the content through a patchwork of bureaucratic anxieties and cultural norms. Someone in the policy or marketing shop complains that a new piece of research or thought leadership contracts established messaging. Or legal might cite a violation of various internal guidelines. A supervisor might complain that public engagement is distracting researchers from their primary scholarly and funding-driven tasks. The executive team might say it’s worried that the content will confuse outsiders about what the organization really stands for, or who really speaks for the organization. Etc.

Whatever the reason, the cumulative organizational message is clear: We’re hostile to the full vitality of research expertise and how it renews itself and benefits all of us. The hostility instead reflects a blinkered view of the role of researchers as elves (or, perhaps more aptly, child labor), conducting their analyses and magic behind the brand of the organization, neither seen nor heard.

In 2020, these reasons and restrictions aren’t just laughably archaic and noncompetitive. They’re also shameful and indefensible, especially coming from organizations that benefit from public funding or tax-exempt status. Not only does the public lose out when we’re denied research-based insights; we lose out when young researchers are denied opportunities to learn how to engage effectively with the public and decision makers and to develop their own points of view.

And with that, my complaining ends. Because fortunately, in 2020, every researcher now has those opportunities, anyway. They’re just guerilla. They’re not sanctioned by bureaucracies, but they’re also too nimble for bureaucracies to censor and too personal for bureaucracies to co-opt. Guerilla thought leadership formats include:

  • Threading on Twitter (of course);
  • Your own email newsletter (often these days through Substack);
  • Podcasting with another researcher at another institution;
  • Being interviewed as a subject matter expert for a Twitch or LinkedIn video series.
  • Writing for an existing online channel (say, on Medium) for a specialist audience that your organization doesn’t target (say, data visualizers).

Successful guerilla thought leadership in the face of institutional resistance to conventional thought leadership has all of the following qualities:

  • It’s hyperpersonal and informal, as opposed to branded by and speaking for the organization.
  • It’s reactive to events, positioned as a quick take on new research, an upcoming conference or a development in thinking.
  • It’s quick — quickly produced and posted, too quickly to offer cumbersome institutional forces a practical opportunity for review.
  • It’s overtly directed at a specialist audience, although nonspecialists (like media) can consume it profitably. The targeting of a specialist audience means it has a much better chance of passing under your institution’s threshold of review.

Increasing numbers of researchers are using these tactics to sidestep institutional disapproval and build awareness among communities for their own ideas and questions.

The funny thing is — guerilla or not, researchers are and should be engaging in these tactics anyway, regardless of whether their organizations support their thought leadership development. That’s because newsletters, podcasting, video Q&As and other guerilla activities force you to be ultraresponsive to the outside world and your target communities.  Sidestepping institutional channels —​ while it abandons the marketing power of the institution  —​​ ultimately positions you to be much better at public engagement. 

More on each of these genres in coming weeks.