The battle for thought leadership

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The opinion pages of major publications are the most valuable real estate in the thought leadership market, aspired to by many corporate figures. Who is getting a run, on what and how?

We went through every piece in the opinion pages, across a typical week, of The Australian Financial Review, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and The Australian’s Business section.

How many business leaders got a run? Five.

That’s out of a total of 89 pieces (each publication ran three to five a day). Almost half, 41, were authored by staff writers, six by current or former politicians, 13 from research institutes and five from peak bodies.

Stories were also penned by five academics, three authors, two communications consultants, two lawyers and a psychiatrist.

That’s a reasonable spread of occupations joining the battle of ideas, although arguably an unhealthy proportion of journalists and politicians. A broader search of opinion articles over two months backed up these proportions, with more than half authored by journalists or politicians.

A preoccupation with politics, economics and tax is evident, with a third (32) of opinion pieces featuring political or economic commentary. Unsurprising, given most staff journalists with regular columns cover these areas, and parliaments and politics are our key forums for debate. COVID-19 was eating up about 10 per cent of the space on opinion pages.

More than a quarter of the articles (26) focused on current and topical social issues - such as consent, education, teachers and relationships with former students, bail laws, corruption and racism. The Age and Sydney Morning Herald had the biggest focus on social issues, as their 12 pieces more than doubled those in any other publication.

There were 13 pieces on international affairs - if you want to be published on global issues, try The Australian, they ran nine of them - and there were nine pieces around energy and sustainability topics.

The most common topic addressed was government policy, and controversy or criticism was a key ingredient in most published pieces, especially of government.

You can see why the AFR ran Fortescue director Mark Barnaba’s upfront attack on polluters, calling out leading corporations: “We now know who makes our single-use plastic, and who is funding it. Let’s hold them to account…. ExxonMobil, Sinopec and Qenos are the largest contributors to the single-use plastic we consume – while ANZ and AustralianSuper are the leading Australian financier and investor”.

There is scope for business leaders to make positive calls to action, as Altor Electric’s Ross Gregory demonstrated with his plea for Australia to mine for and manufacture EV batteries: “Australia has to think not only about liberating its resources, digging them up and shipping them out, but also designing a downstream processing route so that the extracted minerals can be transformed into battery-grade chemicals, thereby enhancing the nation’s resource economics.”

So what’s the secret sauce, aside from courting controversy and criticising the government?

You need to find a way to stand out, hopefully with the strength of an original idea.

As one senior opinion editor told our team: “On top of our regular writers, we are currently receiving several dozen new submissions each day so space is at a premium.”

Submissions must earn their spot, and be written in a way editors think will engage readers.

Pieces should be timely, engaging and appeal to a broad audience.

Our five takeaway rules to being published:

1. Be opinionated. Take a position, editors want pieces that confront and spark debate, not a summation of an issue. True thought leadership means leading debate with an original thought.

2. Don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid of offending - especially of institutions doing the wrong thing. Strong opinion pieces advocate change.

3. It’s not marketing. Editors don’t want opinion pieces to read like marketing content, so minimise brand or product mentions.

4. Be topical. What is the hot topic in your area? Respond to an unfolding debate, announcement or controversy, and be quick and timely.

5. Call to action. What needs to be done? If you are pointing out a problem, what’s your solution?

To find out how Icon Reputation can help you become a thought leader, contact us today.

Article by Mark Forbes, Director of Icon Reputation

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