ITL #479   An overused term: has PR devalued thought leadership?

3 months, 1 week ago

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True thought leadership is a powerful marketing tool but too often it’s a catch-all term for low-value content. By Libby Howard



‘Thought leadership’ has become a ubiquitous term in PR. Looking back over the last 10 years of pitches and briefs, I can count on the fingers of one hand those that didn’t contain a reference to making the client a ‘thought leader’ in their world.

 

That is in part a reflection of the nature of my agency’s work (we major on B2B and ‘heavyweight’ B2C comms). But I also see it in the growth of owned content on LinkedIn and company websites, as more organisations seek to position themselves as the ‘go to’ authority in their field.

 

The changing media landscape has played its part, too. As the readership of traditional media outlets continues to decline and trust in the media is tested ever more heavily, the opportunity for organisations to become their own publishers has blossomed.

 

Leading UK PR thinker Stephen Waddington says in his predictions for 2022: “Database vendors are adding newsletter authors to media databases. It's a sign of the times. Traditional publications, digital-first outlets and influencers have embraced the format to build stronger relationships with their audiences.”

 

Thought leadership: content gold

In content creation terms, I would argue that thought leadership is at the apex. It is hard to do well, but when you get it right it can deliver impressive results – especially when it is planned as part of an integrated marketing campaign.

 

My own team have delivered international white paper campaigns that have not only created downloads and impressions, but also new connections, speaker opportunities and even the opportunity to influence public policy. True thought leadership is ‘content gold’.

 

So what’s gone wrong?

 

Let’s take a step back and consider exactly what we mean by thought leadership. Wikipedia’s summary entry is enlightening:

 

A thought leader has been described as an individual or firm recognized as an authority in a specific field and also as business jargon with Orwellian undertones.

 

It adds:

 

…being a thought leader means to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of the target audience on a particular topic. Thought leaders are commonly asked to speak at public events, conferences, or webinars to share their insight with a relevant audience.

 

…The phrase "thought leader" is identified by some writers as an annoying example of business jargon. Kevin Money and Nuno Da Camara of the John Madejski Centre for Reputation at the University of Reading's Henley Management College write that the nebulous nature of the phrase (the unclear nature of "what is and what is not thought leadership") contributes to its reputation among cynics as "meaningless management speak." 

 

Reclaim the value

This is the paradox – true thought leadership is a unique marketing tool, but the term has become over-used and its value debased.

 

Ten top tips? (Helpful, but not thought leadership). A thinly veiled product launch dressed up as an opinion piece? (Absolutely not thought leadership). A think piece from a new appointment outlining their plans for the future? (Unless they’re inventing a cure for cancer, very unlikely to be thought leadership).

 

It’s time that we as PR professionals stand up and reclaim the true value of thought leadership.

 

Why? Because it gives us an opportunity to showcase our hard-won skillset and to protect budgets and livelihoods as the lines between marketing disciplines become ever more blurred.

 

In my view, PR is the natural home for thought leadership because our discipline combines a deep understanding of target audiences and communities with the ability to deliver complex and compelling long-form content. Crucially, we also understand the importance of topicality and not delivering a ‘hard sell’.

 

How to do thought leadership well

In the mentoring work I’ve done over the years, creating good thought leadership content is a topic that comes up time and again. Newer PR and comms practitioners can find it a daunting task; they need support and guidance to learn what is a complex art.

 

There is no one size fits all recipe, but here are a few tips from my own experience that I hope will be useful to you.

 

  • Find the expert in the organisation. At its heart, thought leadership is about genuine expertise and knowledge. When seeking an author or a collaborator for a thought leadership campaign, find the person who is the ‘go to’ in the client’s organisation, the person who has deep knowledge of an issue or a problem facing the target audience. Then mine them for information.
  • Channel your client’s world. To be able to deliver good thought leadership, you need to immerse yourself in your client’s world and to understand their strategic challenges and opportunities. Reading key journals and websites will help you to gain a deeper understanding than just following news stories. Ultimately, you will need to provide some strategic guidance about how to position the content for maximum effect.
  • Reflect the client’s business strategy. While thought leadership isn’t about selling products, when being used as a marketing tool it does of course have a commercial goal. Make sure your chosen theme strongly reflects the client’s own strategy and desired positioning. Otherwise, you’re just making noise.
  • Work the content hard. I think this is an area where we can all improve. All too often we create a great piece of content, a white paper say, but we don’t work it across every possible channel. For example, how can you chunk up the content into smaller elements or visuals for use on social media? Is the client using the content on their own website and newsletter? Does it have any investor value? Can you use it to deliver a speaker opportunity or to contribute insight to an industry body?

 

Conclusion

The irony of writing about thought leadership in a series of thought leadership essays is not lost on me, but rather than navel-gaze I hope I’ve shown what a valuable tool it can be and perhaps also delivered a rallying cry for PR to reclaim one of the jewels in its crown.

 

 

 

 


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The Author

Libby Howard

Libby Howard is the founder of Intelligent Conversation.

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