Working in communications, I’ve come across organizations with C-suiters engaging in thought leadership in a purposeful way and grounded in specific goals. But there are many others with leaders who seize any opportunity to participate in the media. Many simply believe that breadth of content is far more important than depth and increasing the number of eyes that come across their organization is the greatest value in media engagement, rather than deploying selective storytelling through planned strategy. Those beliefs, especially when trickled down, imbue a sense of dread in employees who feel they need to have something ground-breaking or otherwise unique to say. But the fact is not everyone actually has something ground-breaking or unique to say…and that is okay.
With the mass publication of mediocre and occasionally truly garbage pieces, we have majorly dumbed down what thought leadership is supposed to be. At the root of the term is expertise; it means bringing something new to the table, something that even other leaders in the industry may not have considered. And despite how quickly news moves, there is a finite amount of new perspective available to be offered. True thought leadership, the kind of writing that makes the reader pause and realize the writer is a savvy thinker representing a brand that values and attracts top talent, should be rare. We do not serve readers looking for wisdom when we propagate and position entry-level content as expertise from a thought leader.
Yet we continue to see this proliferation of content for the sake of having content in the name of “thought leadership” — and not just from organizational leaders. Content creation has become an expectation for many, even when their roles don’t demand it and the organization won’t benefit from it. Not all positions require constant innovation and even for those that call for innovation to lead to excellence, the doers’ stability allows the rockstar thinkers the space and time to do so. For those employees, their time would be better spent serving in their actual roles, both for their own sake and that of their company.
Forcing employees into unnecessary overproduction of content is more likely to open them up to vulnerability than spark the kind of creative or thought-provoking genius of a media piece that can truly elevate an organization’s brand. Pressure such as that often leads to the kind of vanilla pieces that are impossible to place, thus wasting the writer’s time in the first place. Alternatively, on the off chance that a simplistic piece is published — whether by an outlet that too is more about volume than quality or even a company’s internal blog — it can reflect negatively on the employer, indicating that its employees are not out-of-the-box thinkers. And communications professionals are fully aware that negative press often draws far more attention than multiple positive hits.
There will always be room in most industries for those explainers that help entry-level members understand concepts they perhaps did not get exposure to in schooling or training. There will always be room for tactical how-to pieces that can help process-oriented people break down something complex. But these are not avenues for thought leadership. And the inception of these pieces should come from authors who express interest in writing them. They should not be foisted on reluctant-to-participate employees in the name of obligatory “thought leadership.”
Participating in the media has abundant benefits for organizations. Proactive outreach in the form of news opportunities and placed opinion pieces can and should be a part of a strategy that’s thoroughly considered and matched to mission and goals for growth. True thought leadership — invoking the voices of the right people who can positively reflect the brand and put forth opinions and angles that are innovative for the industry — is a powerful communications tool. But let’s not pretend anyone can do it.