Thought leadership is a common term in most B2B public relations programs. But what does it really mean, and which qualities make a successful thought leader? We examine these questions on behalf of clients and have a blueprint of sorts for developing and supporting thought leadership in a company executive or expert.
What qualities make a successful thought leader?
When we begin working with an executive team, we look for the member or members who are eager to demonstrate their authority and expertise through content development, speaking opportunities, and the like. But desire isn’t always enough. We also look for other qualities.
Walk the walk.
A true thought leader doesn’t just talk. Some CEOs and others get fixed on this buzzword without understanding that their credibility is on the line, and being a thought leader is not about contrived self-promotion. A good rule of thumb when carving out a thought leadership position is to test notions against the “Four I’s” – innovation, information, instruction and inspiration. The goal would be to gain some traction on each of the four. We like to look at what a company is already doing that’s newsworthy, or lessons derived from an initiative that didn’t pan out. One exercise is to probe any innovative or provocative point of view, ideas that advance an industry or flip some previously held notions, or offer predictions for the future. When someone like Elon Musk says that Tesla batteries could be used to replace Puerto Rico’s electrical system, there’s a grain of thought leadership there.
Be open to recommendations.
Often a company leader has the kernel of an interesting idea, but can’t quite articulate it in a way that’s meaningful. This is where the savvy PR team comes in. A skilled team will help mold an executive’s bare-bones concept into something that news media and other audiences will want to hear about. Sometimes, that means simple tweaks to make a generalization more specific, like when our digital publisher client wanted to share expertise on storytelling in healthcare marketing. We helped streamline that broad topic into concrete examples of stories that resonate with newly diagnosed patients. Or it can be a complete overhaul. All we ask is that our clients remain open and receptive to our thoughts on the subject.
Share and share alike.
Once we are all on the same page about someone’s thought capital, we look for the right avenues to share with target audiences. We develop a content marketing strategy that encompasses:
- Expert commentary – weighing in on relevant news
- Blogs – an executive’s own, plus a commenting strategy for others
- White papers – a great way to demonstrate thought capital in long form to a particular audience
- Bylined articles – which can derive from white papers and other sources, for placement in key verticals, on a number of topics, calendarized to keep a steady flow of solid content
- Videos – particularly “how-to” or “behind-the-scenes”
- Podcasts – producers are constantly looking for guests and appearances are a great way to help hone interview skills
- Speeches – at industry conferences, trade shows and other events which can be repurposed as articles, blog posts and white papers
- Books – self or traditionally published, a book is the most credible way to package a leader’s thinking and is still the clincher for some media decision-makers
- Social media – to show some leader personality and to leverage all of the other output
And any other interesting way to share the smarts. The trust earned by “giving it all away” translates into rewards like new business, funding and partnership leads as well as increased media interest. The best thought leaders offer real value because they share insights that educate and help others succeed. Leadership reputation can be increased substantially by sharing information with colleagues and community.
Invite others onto the stage.
Giving visibility to others in the field, or complementary fields, helps elevate the public conversation and expand spheres of influence. It also gives back. When we encouraged a medical device client to speak on a panel with other science leaders, it opened doors to more speaking invitations and offers to co-write important articles. On a practical level, these kinds of relationships also boost readership and likes and follows to social media posts.
Never rest on past accomplishments. The digital world is changing so fast that yesterday’s pithy commentary is today’s old news. Stay educated and on top of trends and look for natural ways to shake up the industry conversation. Even if something is experimental or really “out there,” it’s beneficial to use a position or platform to advance theories and ask hard, or even uncomfortable, questions. Most companies have multiple audiences, from stakeholders like partners and investors, to employees and customers. It pays to listen to each segment through direct dialogue as well as social media monitoring and customer feedback, to take their temperature and determine how major ideas are received – or if they’re received. This sort of engagement not only informs content strategy, but helps keep a brand connected to its audience in a meaningful way. Feedback is truly the gift that keeps on giving.