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I’m no expert, but….

23rd August 2017

“When feeling trumps knowing - how to be a trusted expert in a time when no one trusts experts”

Experts, what do they know?  Those with in-depth knowledge have had a rough time of it lately.  When the UK voted to leave the European Union, the air was full of the sound of experts warning about the oncoming train that would hit the UK if it chose to leave the EU.

But nobody listened. In fact, the more experts of all persuasions warned of the perils of Brexit, the more people became determined to leave the EU.  Experts were seen to represent the establishment and to promote the interests of the elite.  Given that Brexit was a vote against the establishment as much as a vote against the EU, the more the experts pontificated, the more people mistrusted them.

Pollsters too have lost all credibility.  In election after election the polls are proved wrong. In fact, bookmakers now are more often quoted by the media as to a candidate’s prospective election chances.

Scientists and researchers have also lost our trust.  One month they reveal new evidence that fat is good for us; next week it’s bad.  The fact that much of this flip flopping research is funded and promoted by those with a vested interest in certain results, just adds to the paranoia and suspicion towards experts.

The students have taken over the university and today it seems the more authoritative the expert the less we trust them.  As Michael Gove, the UK politician recently said: “People have had enough of experts.”.  Expert opinion and facts no longer move or convince us.  As is often the case, Homer Simpson nails the public mood: “Facts are meaningless.  You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!”.

Recent research into public attitudes towards experts ranked “a person like yourself” as the most credible. This was followed, in order of trust ratings, by: technical experts, academics, employees, financial analysts, NGOs, CEOs, company directors and right at the bottom, Government spokespeople.

While it is undoubtedly wise to have a sceptical view of experts and forensically look behind who might be funding their apparently independent findings, there is clearly a loss to society from this corrosion in trust.  Sometimes experts are telling us something genuinely useful and new that could improve our lives.  Sadly, we now just tune out to all of it - whether genuine expert advice or a contrived marketing ploy. Pundits have cried wolf once too often and so now we don’t see the wolf coming, as was the case with Brexit. 

The misappropriation of experts by those with commercial of political ideology interests has coincided with the ballooning in social media and the self-appointed everyday experts.  The unqualified wisdom of the crowd has become more influential than the wisdom of experts.

So what does this mean for those of us in the communications profession who make a living from promoting CEOs or senior figures in public life as experts and thought leaders?  What does it mean for the way we communicators use hired gun experts to promote the agendas of the organisations or individuals we represent?

Firstly, for any expert to be taken seriously as a thought leader, what they say must be seen to be as independent as possible or at least they should declare their interest up front.  This is a question of degrees of subtlety.  Everyone knows there is no such thing as totally independent research and opinion, but by including opposing views in thought leadership and by not trying to hide the author’s interest in the debate, communicators crafting thought leadership will find their work is listened to and considered far more.  The Hamlet quote about protesting too much applies here – don’t let thought leadership drift into blinkered propaganda.  The more unquestioning and strident the tone, the less it will be believed.

If research shows the most trusted experts are everyday folk that aren’t experts at all, then thought leaders from the establishment need to see issues through the eyes of everyday people.   The most effective thought leadership will offer advice and opinion that will help and benefit the wider public, rather than the few in positions of power and wealth. 

Thought leaders need to write and speak with their customers in mind and consider how their expertise can help stakeholders.  By framing any thought leadership in this way, people will be able to relate more and act upon what is being said.

The new landscape for thought leadership from experts requires authenticity; putting the expert in the minds of audiences and thinking about how the expert’s insight and knowledge can help them to improve their situation.

Great thought expert comment must be balanced and not rabidly one sided; it must speak to the people in the language of the people; and it must be genuine advice that is in the best interests of the target audience as well as the interests of the organisation behind the expert’s thinking and data.

The best thought leadership is great advice to solve problems, based on as detailed research as possible from a person or organisation with the experience in that field to give authority to any opinions.  If thought leadership from any expert fails to give advice to help people avoid problems or to fare better, then it is just promotional propaganda that at best will not be heard; and at worst will destroy trust in that expert as yet another fact bender to suit an agenda.

Chris Genasi

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