The first major step in the process of generating thought leadership content – a building block of best practice public relations – is understanding organisational business objectives and imperatives.
The second is ensuring thought leadership content operates as an integrated pillar in a cohesive communication strategy ‘whole’.
And the third is ensuring that organisational leadership supports and buys in to the thought leadership approach that professional communicators are espousing.
Without their support two things will occur:
- Budget will wither on the vine for the initiative, if indeed the vine even gets to grow
- Sufficient time from senior leadership will not be dedicated towards the thought leadership pillar.
The latter point is more of an issue than in most other forms of communication, due to senior leadership being imperative in providing at least some insights that communicators can weave their magic from. Senior leadership will also need to, at least a little, provide a personal presence for marketing purposes to help give the initiative stature and credence.
When describing thought leadership, it is hard to go past corporate communication expert Craig Badings:
“Thought Leadership is establishing a relationship with and delivering something of value to your stakeholders and customers that aligns with your brand/company value. In the process you go well beyond merely selling a product or service and establish your brand/company as the expert in that field and differentiate yourself from your competitors.”
Other salient characteristics of thought leadership include:
Thought leadership: a comms paradigm with chutzpah
Thought leadership involves providing content that is original, thought provoking but, above all in the context of business, useful for organisational target audiences and, ideally, prompts them to tell others about the value that it has provided them. Even more pedantically, these ‘others’ will either be more target audiences or influencers on target audiences.
A challenge for senior leadership will be that a large part of thought leadership involves challenging orthodoxies. There is no point in replicating information that already exists and/or has no vitality, personality or chutzpah about it.
Life is too short for vanilla; go for flavour!
This is what will engage people, not dreary corporate join-by-numbers verbiage that is clearly space filler and has no utility or fascination for organisational target audiences. Thought leadership that offers nothing new, no insights or is an excitement vacuum…is an oxymoron.
And whilst controversy is an ideal characteristic of thought leadership, the reality is that it isn’t often achievable, due to the wariness of senior leadership to gravitate too far from their comfort zone. And that’s fine. There is plenty to work with that can avoid the ‘sensationalist’ (no-go?) zone.
Steps to thought leadership content
The generation of thought leadership content and leveraging it to enhance reputation, create more positive target audience relationships and facilitate the achieving of organisational objectives – including increasing profits – entails:
- Identifying who the employees fronting the thought leadership program are
- Identifying topics that organisational leaders have considerable expertise in, are passionate about and/or would like to be known for discussing – primarily for business reasons but there could be personal drivers to this as well, then exploring these topics with the leaders
- Decide which of these topics are best for the organisation to focus on and will help accentuate its differentiation, reputation and branding
- Undertaking further research on the topics and applying creative licence to them
- Creating a thought leadership content placement plan, with media outlets, for instance, listed and prioritised
- Developing thought leadership content
- Potentially involving 3rd party alliances in content development
- Customising thought leadership content in a manner suitable for the communication mechanisms it will be distributed through (e.g. opinion pieces for media placement; white papers for mail/email; business presentations; website/social media)
- Distributing (e.g. directly to stakeholders) and/or placing (e.g. in media or on digital platforms) this content
- Ensuring that as much leveraging of the content as possible occurs through a communication ‘echo chamber’, optimising its use across mediums and target audience segments
- Analyse the program’s impact against communication and business objectives.
Advanced thought leadership methodologies
The clever public relations professional who facilitates this process will be assiduous in applying three methodologies, in particular, to gain the best possible result. The qualitative level at which these methodologies are applied constitutes the difference between an acceptable PR pro and a truly excellent one:
- Undertake research on the organisational leader before interviewing them. The intent is to gain quite an intimate understanding of their personal take on organisational objectives and passions. Talk to their PA and other people in the organisation; undertake research into presentations and media interviews they have done; conceptualise how this information fits into organisational business and marketing objectives
- Be creative in the weaving in of themes, issues, perspectives and insights that the organisational leader did not flag in his or her initial sharing of thoughts (some of which will be based on pre-interview research). The application of this creativity can add significant value to the process and elevate the thought leadership content. The excellent PR pro will be adept at extending the leader’s thoughts, or at least their direction, so the recommended value-adding seems as if it was indeed part of the initial leader’s thinking
- Challenging what the leader had to say in his or her proposed thought leadership content. This is not to refute it, but to test it, to inject it with added rigour and to round out the thinking with additional perspectives.
Applying these methodologies to the thought leadership generation process will help propel it to the highest and most impressive level possible.
This post is an edited version of an article in a free white paper, The Holy Trinity of public relations, produced by experienced corporate communication practitioner, Craig Pearce. The white paper is available as a free download for all email subscribers to his blog, Public relations and managing reputation. The white paper provides an overview of the strategic dimensions of, and practical implementation tips on, thought leadership, 3rd party credibility and strategic alliances. Download the whitepaper here.