Not everyone can Thought Leadership like this. Have a system in place.
How leaders can create a framework for healthier business conversations.
For a few years now, I’ve resisted the term “thought leadership“. Often used in contexts satirizing vacuous management jargon, it strikes some as even a purposeful obfuscation, a way for leaders to avoid discussion and true accountability. It can sound a bit… silly.
Today, I have to begrudgingly accept that the Thought Leader isn’t going anywhere, and the demand for thought leadership support will remain strong, especially in these fraught times.
American metapundit Dan Drezner, author of the seminal The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas, draws an important distinction between public intellectuals (what I aspire to be as a political commentator and media producer) and thought leaders (what most of my clients are as specialists and evangelists in their fields).
I’m not sure I agree with the Obama-Trump dichotomy but to depoliticize things a bit and contextualize this concept for our purposes in public relations or B2B marketing: thought leaders have products to sell.
While thought leaders in a political context can look a lot like populism, in a business context, a refined thought leadership-communications strategy can actually improve the intellectual landscape in a given field; the thought leadership framing gives a founder, CEO, president or any executive-level spokesperson the license to politely challenge conventional wisdom of their peers, educate their communities, foster an innovative culture in their organizations and help market their services, all at once.
In a typical vertically-integrated product rollout, there is no space reserved for educational messages, whitepapers, podcast discussions or commentary pieces. For professional services firms in particular, we are of the view that “thought leadership” should be baked into marketing plans.
For essential services (ex. healthcare, law or real estate), what we could also call Leadership Communications, B2B Marketing or Business Communications, is becoming an increasingly essential part of public relations activities with consumers expecting a rich, informative website or app experience.
Our team spent a large portion of the pandemic’s first year delivering important information and industry perspectives about modernizing Canadian healthcare; as the pandemic entered its second year, we were writing press releases about important government partnerships with those same clients.
The thing that people call thought leadership can actually inform a society and inspire confidence.
How to Thought Leadership
New clients who haven’t had much interaction with a PR or content agency will often ask some approximation of: How do I thought leadership?!
Some feel that a longer-than-usual LinkedIn status attached to a selfie or motivational stock photo may suffice but, in our view, leadership PR is a defined process and a permanent commitment.
Sales-driven product marketing is one thing and an important consideration for nearly all organizations. Getting the organization’s leader truly involved in marketing and industry advocacy can be a time-consuming endeavour, especially without an efficient thought leadership and PR system in place.
In an increasingly complex and competitive media environment where space is at a premium, a thought leader will be heavily scrutinized. Doing PR on a whim in order to sell something this quarter or just for the sake of it will increasingly yield negative results, or more precisely no results at all. Leaders must commit over time, several quarters or even years, to maintaining an editorial direction for their organizations and advocating for innovative practices within their industry on a regular basis.
Writing, in several forms, is a good start: a foundational whitepaper, instructional document, leadership profile, commentary piece, informative blog or a content-rich newsletter delivered monthly or quarterly is a good start for any leader.
Video webinars and social media messages can be effective, but for “thought leadership” specifically, audio is often our preferred format. The convenience, intimacy and versatility of a podcast is perfectly-suited to this type of PR. It gives leaders a safe, structured format within which they can express their views and inform listeners; it’s among the most persuasive and intimate mediums.
With a bank of content and public conversations comes the confidence to advocate within the industry, creating some buzz and hopefully recognition; the PR team should then build on this, using specialized thought leadership to fuel broader public conversations within traditional and digital media outlets.
In practice, it’s of course a bit more complicated than “write and tell people about it” but simply committing to that, and focusing on one key concept that can be summarized in a single sentence, is a good first step to becoming a productive thought leader.
Some examples of “thought leadership statements” from some of own collaborations in recent years:
– Every citizen deserves access on-demand virtual healthcare
– Unmarried spouses are entitled to the same rights as traditionally-married spouses
– A society that respects animal rights avoids killing animals as often as possible– Estate planning and settlement services should be accessible to all
– A shortage in housing supply can most efficiently be addressed by building homes
Any one such statement can inspire dozens of pieces of informative content, and perhaps most importantly keep the leader accountable to their own vision and goals.
In rolling out one’s thought leadership plan to the public, or even within the organization via internal communications, my last bit of advice is perhaps the most valuable: whatever you choose to publish in any medium, please remember to never actually refer to it as “thought leadership“, except behind closed doors. As important as it is, it will never stop sounding a bit silly.
Dan Delmar is Managing Partner, Communications at TNKR Media.