What Makes a Thought Leader and How to Help Your Clients Get There

April 24, 2017

[sergey nivens]
[sergey nivens]

In every industry, there are individuals or organizations that rise to the top as revolutionary. They push boundaries and provoke new ideas. They are seen as influencers and knowledgeable frontrunners that facilitate growth. They are thought leaders.

In public relations, our clients often look to us to help an individual or company achieve thought leadership status among key stakeholders. Doing so is, admittedly, easier said than done, and it’s important that public relations professionals take unique, industry-specific approaches to ensure differentiation. However, there are several strategies that can put you, and your clients, on the right track to recognition. 

Looking for knowledge

Thought leaders come in many shapes and sizes. A thought leader could be a scientist discovering the newest medical advancement, or the tech startup creating new apps that transform simple daily tasks. Yet, even among vastly different interests or specialties, there are a few attributes that can be found in all true thought leaders: a genuine interest in the greater good of the industry or specialty; a wealth of knowledge about relevant industry trends; and a willingness to take risks.

1. A genuine interest in the greater good of the industry or specialty

A genuine interest in the industry or specialty is essential to becoming a thought leader and will drive an individual or company’s desire to participate in communication activities that elevate their thought leadership status. However, a genuine interest in the greater good of the communities affected by the individual or company is what truly differentiates an individual or entity. Great speakers, writers and presenters are authentic and passionate.

2. A wealth of knowledge about relevant industry trends

It’s much easier for an executive to be a thought leader if he or she rigorously stays current on the latest trends and news driving their industry. These trends and topics will be of natural interest to target audiences. If an executive is well versed in these areas, he or she will be able to easily provide commentary or opinion — and even more important, to apply knowledge of such trends to their business. From there, it will be your job as the public relations specialist to translate those insights into unique communication angles.

3. A willingness to take risks

Risk taking is a leadership behavior. No one becomes a leader by playing it safe. Risk could translate to a particular product investment, community focus or unique message. Individuals or companies who identify unmet needs in the communities they serve — and create plans to address those needs — will be more likely to differentiate themselves over the long term.

It’s important to remember you may have clients who are not traditionally progressive. Clients don’t need to be inventors, multimillionaire CEOs or Harvard-graduate prodigies to establish themselves as thought leaders. Small but meaningful gestures can still make a big impact with the stakeholders you’re trying to reach.

Differentiating clients as thought leaders in their industries

After learning the nuances of the individual or organization, the next step is to create an action plan to elevate their visibility. To best represent your thought leader client, you should understand the industry, individual or company you are representing, be selective with opportunities, and be truly innovative in your thought sharing.

1. Understand the industry, individual or company you are representing.

As a public relations professional, it’s important for you to truly grasp the industry, individual or company you’re representing, so you can create communication strategies that reach the right audiences with the right messages. What is deemed thought leadership in one industry or community may not be important to another. As such, do your research and understand what will resonate with your audiences. Where do your client’s stakeholders get their information? What is important to them? Resolving these essential questions will help ensure your strategy is the right one.

2. Be selective with opportunities.

A thought leader does not need to be everywhere with the same message. Finding the right message to be used in the right venue will elevate your client over other individuals or organizations. Be strategic in the opportunities that you recommend and cater your messages to the audience of each particular opportunity. Only consider speaking engagements, industry conferences, community events and media outreach that strongly tie to the message you’re trying to deliver. This approach will enable your client to become a sought-after resource.

3. Be truly innovative in your thought sharing.

Help your client cut through the clutter by creating unique and customized messages and delivering them on innovative platforms. Not only should your message bring something new to the discussion, it should also be strategically delivered through channels that reach the right audiences. What are your clients doing differently from their competitors? What is unique about how they reach their objectives? Are their objectives focused on the end goal of helping a community? What new tools or technologies are available for message sharing (i.e., Facebook Live)? These are the types of questions that will inform smart, strategic and distinct messages.

Recognizing potential risks

As mentioned, reasonable risk can be essential to establishing thought leadership — but unnecessary risk is never good for business. Help your client identify and prepare for potential risks. Remember that with high visibility comes the possibility for backlash and controversy. Weigh the risks before implementing any communications tactic, and anticipate potential issues that may arise. Create action plans and messages to mitigate risks, and gain approval in advance. That way, if an issue surfaces, your agency team and your client will be prepared.

Preparing for success

Establishing and promoting thought leadership is an exciting, but challenging, task. To be successful:

  • Work with your clients to understand the unique attributes that set them apart from their competitors
  • Identify the right opportunities through research.
  • Be selective and innovative in your message development and dissemination.
  • Prepare for risks that may arise.

By approaching thought leadership with these tips in mind, your clients will be ready to elevate their visibility within their industries, as experts in their fields. 

Erica Tursi
Erica Tursi is a vice president at GCI Health, an award-winning PR agency with professionals across the United States, Canada and Europe. She is passionate about partnering with pharmaceutical companies to create resonating communication platforms that address specific barriers, challenges or stakeholders.


Brittany Woods says:

This article was engaging and helpful.

May 13, 2017

Cynthia Remen says:

Great article. I might add that the selection of the thought leader is EXTREMELY important--personality, demeanor and presentation skills should be weighed equally to expertise.

June 8, 2017

Meghan Gross says:

Great article and a good reminder to our clients that there's a difference between a profile-raising effort and a thought leadership plan. In the past so many clients want to jump right to thought leadership without doing the necessary credentialing.

July 17, 2017

Samuel Muriithi says:

Superb post Erica. In my opinion every successful entrepreneur has a story to tell, a story that definitely positions them as a thought-leader i.e. one who provides information that others need to succeed. However, rather than make the concerned entrepreneur the focal point of an article, I think that presenting them as a credible resource is the better approach. This way the reading audience receives superb, useful value, and the entrepreneur gets promoted by default. Here's an example: http://www.viableplans.com/18-must-know-things-about-starting-a-naming-and-branding-agency/ Best, Samuel.

April 6, 2018

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