Public Relations Tactics

Putting More Thought Into Practice: Thought Leadership Lessons to Build On

August 3, 2015

[c.j. burton/ corbis]
[c.j. burton/ corbis]

Everyone talks about it and many claim they practice it, yet there’s limited consensus about one of the hottest topics in the PR profession: thought leadership.

Although this strategic platform helps gain visibility, differentiate companies and brands, build relationships and stimulate action, a clear path to success has not been defined.

University courses, business school textbooks or scholarly articles rarely address this topic; the primary source of information appears to be trade news outlets, agency websites and blogs. While some reputable business publications have featured it, articles which suggest that thought leader status can be secured in less than 30 days by following a few easy steps are unreasonable. So what’s a PR professional to do?

The following two examples of thought leadership can provide a template for you to build on. Each business expanded on an idea that allowed for ownership and increased insights and engagement. However, they tapped different sources for inspiration: one leveraged the passion and knowledge of a C-suite leader, and the other was galvanized by stakeholders’ needs.

Bold expert provokes transformation in profession

If you work with a visionary leader, then this lesson is for you.

During a discovery meeting with a new client, our agency team listened to an employee benefits executive talk about the need for transformation in the profession. His revolutionary ideas shot like missiles over our heads. We nodded and blinked a lot.

Yet when he stated, “Some people in our profession are making too much money, and I’m willing to go on the record saying that,” we stopped blinking and stared, recognizing we’d hit a goldmine. This spokesman had an original point of view and ideas worth sharing. He was bold, authentic and insightful. He was willing to challenge conventional wisdom. And the company was inclined to take a risk and adopt a provocative voice for its brand.

Quick, call the media! And so we did.

His perspectives were shared via media relations, social media and content marketing. When PR efforts started eight years ago, the company was completely unknown, and we knocked on lots of editors’ doors. Today, those same publications call us, seeking articles and commentary from this outspoken executive and his colleagues. Due in part to thought leadership activities, the firm is now a recognized leader in its field.

Marketplace issues garner renewed attention

Sometimes you aren’t fortunate enough to have a charismatic subject-matter expert on hand. We’ve all supported organizations that offer exceptional products or services, but don’t seem to have anything extraordinary or newsworthy to say.

A year before our team initiated work with the benefits firm, we began representing a different kind of startup company — a safety syringe manufacturer. They had a novel offering but were competing with giants in a David vs. Goliath scenario. A thought leadership strategy was key to helping the medical device company carve out a promising market niche.

Challenges that mattered were identified, and a multifaceted, multi-year effort was launched to reinvigorate the fight against needlestick injuries and injectable medication errors. While other manufacturers had gone silent about these life-threatening issues, we turned them into hot topics once again. We also recruited third-party nursing and infection control champions to participate in a well-publicized thought leadership roundtable event and an ongoing media relations campaign. Building on this momentum, the company and the American Nurses Association brokered a strategic alliance to conduct annual member surveys.

The survey results received attention and stimulated additional dialogue about needlestick injuries, as well as helped build the case for a product with features only available from our client. In one year, noteworthy ROI was secured with 400 placements in 145 B2B media outlets that reached more than 1.5 million industry readers.

Rather than spawning from the DNA of a leader or corporation, this thought leadership program grew out of customers’ needs. By framing the issue and driving a conversation among influencers, the effort subtly focused the spotlight on the marketplace’s newest contender.
A thought leadership platform can produce significant results and impact reputation, relationships and revenue. Its effects are cultivated, complex and cumulative. But it takes time and commitment to identify an actionable noble cause, establish a voice and gather fans.

And this last point is critical, because a thought leader is a label or recognition awarded or bestowed by others. Remember — you can’t become a leader if no one is following.

Want to Learn More?

Register for the Sept. 10 PRSA webinar, “Thought Leadership: Putting More Thought Into Practice.” In less than an hour, you’ll learn how to create, deploy and evaluate an impactful thought leadership strategy.

Debbie Wetherhead is president of Atlanta-based Wetherhead Communications, and Mandy Roth leads the B2B PR agency’s content marketing and editorial services.


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