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The Case for Thought Leadership as a PR Strategy


blank-page-coffeeIs there something most people don’t understand about your industry that you wish they did?

Do you have an excellent way to explain it to them?

Do you sometimes find yourself muttering, “I oughtta charge for these ideas”?

If so, thought leadership-driven PR might be right for you.

Done right, thought leadership can power engagement with your current customers, raise brand awareness among potential customers, and fuel media coverage of your company. Here’s a look at how and why to consider thought leadership-driven PR.

Background: Standing Out in Today’s Media Landscape

While “thought leadership” has become something of a buzzword, actual thought leadership – that is, insightful people sharing their ideas about topics people care about – is still a hot commodity. As my mother liked to remind me in high school: What’s rare is valuable.

And as Julian Hebron, founder of financial services consultancy The Basis Point and (forgive me) a thought leader behind the concept of thought leadership-driven PR, noted more recently: “Our obsession with speed has replaced the importance of insight and analysis.”

In other words: a lot of us are prioritizing fast comments on the latest news over deeper insight or commentary that might have a longer shelf life.

(For some great insight on this topic, read NYT Opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo’s piece on the two-month period in which he chose to get all his news from print newspapers.)

Hebron suggests that trying to keep up with the news cycle’s breakneck speed is the wrong way to go about things if you hope to become a thought leader (after all, “keeping up” and “leader” are by definition incongruous).

Instead, he recommends getting a clear handle on what you, as the leader of your company, think about various issues that affect your industry – and then communicating those thoughts via a steady stream of content.

“You want to totally control the message through your content machine,” he said. “This becomes the basis for everything else. It’s your pitch for every mini story and major narrative. It all comes from a really well-constructed content program.”

Content that Drives Media Coverage

So what does this well-constructed content program look like?

Hebron recommends having two tiers: “You want topical content and content that addresses broad narratives. The latter lets you stay in a more newsy, relevant cycle. The former lets the company as a whole offer advisory guidance. That’s the stuff that implicitly says, ‘Here’s what we stand for.’”

If the content already on your company website doesn’t make any clear argument about what you stand for, that’s okay. In fact, while we were talking about thought leadership in PR, Hebron quoted historian and author Daniel J. Boorstin: “I write to discover what I think.”

In other words, he recommends sitting down and getting some thoughts on the page. And don’t worry about formatting or articulating them perfectly; instead, try taking a few notes about…

  • The forces that drive and influence your industry.
  • The underlying factors that are often ignored or missed in media coverage.
  • The things that make the problems you’re solving interesting and complex and difficult to grapple with.
  • The reason you do what you do.

Or think of it this way: instead of ranting to your colleagues or your partner, rant on the page.

When you do that, Hebron explained, you have a chance to get your complex, interesting, fully formed thoughts out in the world. This positions you to be found and quoted or interviewed by people writing stories in traditional media outlets – people who can significantly raise the profile of you and your business.

Not only that: by publishing on a channel where you have full control of the story, you get to control the narrative. You get to be on the record about the ideas and issues that matter most to your industry and your customers.

And even if the media coverage your content garners is modest, you’ll enjoy all the benefits that content marketing has to offer by publishing on your own website.

Thought Leadership-Driven PR in Action

An example, you say? Here are two.

The first is from Hebron’s own efforts. A longtime player in the consumer finance industry, Hebron is the founder of consultancy and media platform The Basis Point. In March, he published an article about Facebook’s plans for venturing into the housing space – a move that he pointed out amounted to plans for competing with Zillow.

A few days later, MarketWatch ran a story on the topic quoting and linking to Hebron’s blog post.

Having his commentary already in the world proved essential to getting media coverage. The topic was nuanced and not something easily boiled down to a two-line pitch. Having his thoughts laid out clearly positioned himself as an expert, which led to media outlets treating him as one.

Another example of thought leadership content spurring media coverage came in January, when Jeremy Littau, a journalism professor at Lehigh University, published a lengthy Twitter thread on the reasons behind the recent spate of newsroom layoffs.

Two days later, Littau published a piece in Slate repackaging his argument into a single article. Four days after that, he authored a piece in Wired on the same topic.

These are major news outlets. Their decision to publish Littau’s articles illustrate the ways the media landscape has changed in recent years: Littau shared his thoughts on Twitter, where they went viral and demonstrated the appetite for what he had to say. Major news outlets offered him a platform for going into more detail about those thoughts.

While it’s possible that news outlets will notice your thought leadership content organically, you can turbo-charge the process by engaging in the kind of media outreach that forms the backbone of a traditional PR program.

Hebron suggests thinking of PR as fuel to throw on the fire that is your content and thought leadership program.

At Propllr, one way that manifests is mentioning clients’ thought leadership pieces in conversations with reporters.

Making a Thought Leadership-Driven PR Program Work

While letting thought leadership content drive PR can be a powerful strategy for getting your message into the world and raising your brand’s profile, it’s not a magic bullet.

It requires consistent effort and the regular publication of content that reflects your insights on a platform you control. It requires building relationships with people in the media who might be interested in what you have to say.

And while it’s not magical, this strategy can have serious results when done well. If this approach appeals to you, here are some tips for getting started:

  • Figure out who in your organization has insight to share. Sometimes it’s the CEO, but there’s no reason you have to limit yourself to the CEO.
  • Figure out how you’d like to communicate your message. Are your thought leaders on Twitter a lot? LinkedIn? Do you have a company blog you could use? A podcast? Etc.
  • Choose an idea transmission / content publication method that works for everyone. Some people love to write. Some people dread it. Be honest about what your thought leaders are willing and able to do and be creative to support them (e.g., have a ghostwriter work with your CEO to capture their ideas for a weekly LinkedIn Pulse piece). Note: video and audio are amazing content formats, but they’re also fussier than writing. If you’ve got infrastructure for making video or audio work, go for it. If not, know that you can probably execute on written pieces more easily.
  • Create a publication schedule. Stick to it.
  • Promote your content. Encourage thought leaders to share it on social media. Work with your PR team to promote it. Incorporate it into ongoing conversations. Link to older pieces as you write newer related pieces.
  • See what resonates. Some pieces, takes, and topics will inevitably gain more traction than others. When you figure out which content resonates most with your target audiences, use that knowledge to tailor what you talk about and in what format.

Not quite ready to try this on your own? Don’t worry! Get in touch – we’re here to help!

@PropllrPR