Given that my most recent title was Executive Vice President of Thought Leadership, I’m often asked to define thought leadership. My answer: “The new public relations.”
Not the lofty aspirational answer you were looking for? Read on.
Public relations historically issued press releases, managed the brand, fielded inquiries, and provided defensive triage when necessary—typically acting more reactively than proactively. But the world changed. Long gone are the bustling newsrooms where legions of reporters run down diverse stories of interest. The digital landscape has changed how news is gathered, reported, and distributed. Here in Salt Lake City, we recently witnessed the demise of the weekday print versions of the Tribune and Deseret News.
With such change comes a new and elevated role for public relations to play. The thought leader functions as the point of the PR spear, getting the message out via books, columns, interviews, podcasts, radio, TV, and other properties. Thus, my answer that thought leadership is the new public relations.
What thought leadership isn’t is the serendipitous byproduct of you being the CEO, CMO, or founder.
You can’t just call yourself a thought leader. It’s like calling yourself an expert; if you do, you’re not. You earn such a designation by having it bestowed by others—others who see your thoughts expressed in writing, posts, speeches, and interviews as valuable. Thought leadership is the practice of formulating valued expertise, point of view, or opinion on a particular matter and aiming it at those who care. Or those who should and may not yet realize it.
Here are eight points to consider as you develop and perfect your thought leadership strategy:
- Carefully consider who your intended audience would respect and receive best as a thought leader. Trust me—I most decidedly do not buy a pillow from MyPillow because Mike Lindell tells me why he invented it.
- Pick your topic and go deep. Be reminded of (or haunted by) my colleague Randy Illig’s advice that often when we tell someone we have twenty years of experience, what we mean is we have one year of experience, repeated 19 times. You can’t be an expert or thought leader on everything; although some will try. An expert in everything always equates to being an expert in nothing. I know a few, and they’re gadflies and know-it-alls. Certainly not someone I follow or choose to take advice from. Be sure your thoughts are, in fact, leading out.
- Besides narrowing your focus, narrow your format. You may be a recognized expert in marketing automation, leadership development, or logistics management, and you also might be great at writing short-form articles. However, this doesn’t mean you can crush a 90-second television appearance, keynote a 60-minute conference, or slam dunk a podcast appearance where you have no idea what the host will ask next. Ideally, you’d practice and perfect every opportunity and channel, but it’s more important you identify your best format, hone it well, and then move into others. Know your format and deliver it better than any other thought leaders in your space.
- Know your audience. Are you trying to convert the converted? (Yes, this is a thing.) Are you trying to educate an uneducated audience where non-consumption or ignorance is your biggest competitor? Or are you upskilling professionals in your field and need to change their entrenched mindsets from “what is” to “what could be”? Different messages to different audiences are key as you’re refining your thought leadership and messaging.
- Know the preferred channel of those you’re aiming at. Your preferred format may not be theirs, and you will absolutely need to broaden your skills and understanding of where your targets are looking for information. I know too many sophisticated thought leaders who can’t leverage social media platforms because they see everything through a Harvard Business Review lens. Flexibility and nimbleness are key to rising above the other proverbial megaphones shouting at the same targets.
- Remember, the thought leadership designation doesn’t come overnight. Nothing valuable does. You earn your way there: 200 LinkedIn articles, 150 podcast episodes, 40 monthly columns in your industry’s trade journal, dozens of television and radio interviews, and authorship of a few books. Each industry and target market will look for thought leadership in different formats, and consistent repetition is key. And by the way, if you’re looking to calculate ROI on your thought leadership offerings, best of success to you. Measure it in years and decades, not quarters and media buys.
- Earn the respect of your targets by demonstrating you can convert your thought leadership to a consumable and actionable diet on their experiential and intellectual terms. Having a Ph.D. isn’t a substitute for why the “leadership” part matters. You’re out in front and earning respect by converting your “speak” to their “speak,” regardless of the accolades hanging on your office wall. Your audience has to find themselves in your message, or they won’t care.
- Last, don’t resist the natural smile when you’re introduced as a thought leader in your field someday. That’s when you’ve truly earned it.
Thought leadership is built piece by piece and requires you to design a plan with the above points (and more) and then get to work.
Media outlets, formal and informal, are hunting for talent to appear on their show, program, station, podcast, or conference. In the wise words of Seth Godin, begin with your Smallest Viable Market. Resist the natural temptation to cast a net as broadly as possible, but instead, carefully target those outlets and platforms where your prospects reside and go after them strategically. Most everyone wants some level of improvement; you just need to go to them. Because like the printed weekday version of the Salt Lake Tribune, they’re no longer coming to you.
About the AuthorMore Content by Scott Miller