Under the influence

A sure fire way to a strong public profile is being recognised as influential. I've been thinking a lot about the nature of influence lately, mostly through my involvement in putting together a list of the 50 most influential people when it comes to higher education policy.

Influence is difficult to define and harder to measure – for the most part you simply know it when you see it.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of criteria I think are useful. The first is the obvious one of ‘power’.

If you have the power to make things happen, or to force the hand of those that do, it goes without saying that you have influence.

But power comes in many forms.

There’s the raw power of being able to allocate resources – which is why Treasury ministers and officials top so many influence rankings – as well as the coercive power of being able to set the rules and regulations others have to abide by.

Then there’s the indirect power of being able to strike fear into policy makers with your appraisal of their work – as I write the King’s Fund is receiving a lot of press for its less than positive pre-election review of the NHS.

The second criterion is ‘interest’.

Put simply you may well have (notional) power over an industry or sector, but you have to be interested in getting involved if you want to have an influence.

James Dyson has little obvious say over government policy, but has made it his business to get involved in debates about migration and Britain’s skills needs.

So what lessons do these criteria offer for PRs under pressure to enhance the profiles of chief executives and chairs?

First, they should look for opportunities to put them on platforms that signal genuine authority.

Are there any respected advisory groups or review boards they could join? Are there industry bodies they could justifiably chair?

Nothing says someone has power quite like sitting comfortably in the places where decisions are being made and judgements are being passed.

Secondly, PRs should support their executives to get stuck into policy debates on issues that interest them.

For more cautious reputation guardians it’s tempting to stick with bland messages that few can disagree with, but this is unlikely to convey a sense of genuine engagement.

Sometimes it may be necessary to stick the head above the parapet.

There are no clear metrics for measuring influence. That’s the nature of the beast.

But searching out authoritative platforms and helping to get recognition for genuinely held opinions are two ways that PRs can put their leaders into contention.

Mark Fuller is associate director at Linstock Communications

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