Why ‘thought leadership’ is a buzzword PR pros should retire

The term is meaningless without the true leadership behind it. Here are some tactics PR pros should use to build their clients’ reputations.

Buzzwords are like fashion trends—the favorite looks of this year’s autumn season are headed to the trash heap by the time spring rolls around. Many of us can’t even look at the 80s or 90s hairstyles without cringing—and so it goes with jargon.

In the case of the phrase “thought leadership,” though, it gets tricky. No matter how much you proclaim the happy end of “thought leadership” as meaningless jargon, thought leadership is an essential part of many communications plans.

When used correctly, thought leadership is exactly what it says on the tin.

For businesses, thought leaders are at the cutting edge, changing industry expectations about what is even possible to accomplish, and helping others realize their full potential. Thought leaders are industry experts. They’re leaders. They’re facilitators.

Should we retire thought leadership?

There is a problem with how thought leaders apply the title to themselves. It’s like calling yourself smart, and it rubs people the wrong way. Let’s be real: If you have to say it yourself, it’s only because nobody else would.

How do we stop contributing to the buzzword cycle?

Traditionally, most public relations programs have included some sort of thought leadership component, putting the spotlight on the organization’s CEO and maybe a couple other key executives. This approach is narrow and can backfire. What happens when you lose your CEO or other thought leader as they leave your organization to do something else?

For big companies, these events often feed media frenzies as the entire existence of an organization is called into question. So, let’s talk about building up your executive’s industry profile—but avoiding some of these pitfalls.

1.  Expand your organization’s media training.

Typically, only your CEO gets hands-on media training, or it’s a complete afterthought that only comes up in an emergency or when the company needs to secure a broadcast interview.

This is not enough.

Teach your leaders how to speak on behalf of the company. Teach them how to respond to tough criticism without tarnishing the brand. This preparation is essential, because even if they never appear on broadcast television, they will have a clear understanding of how to interact with the media and how to represent their company in the public.

2.  Broaden your corporate blogger pool.

Your company blog is the perfect place to start.

Unlike an interview that relies on outside journalists, in your own blog you can craft the exact message you want. Plus, you give your leaders a byline that highlights their expertise. This is important because many journalists begin their research with a quick web search—and what better way to offer your expertise than through your own blog?

You should include these regular blog posts into your PR content strategy—and think about pitching some of that content as contributions to other relevant and authoritative media sites.

3.  Encourage your leaders to use social media.

Some executives resist this, while others are all too happy to put their entire lives out there. The key here is to find a happy medium between these two extremes.

Proper media training will help, as your executives will be better prepared to exist and engage on social in a way that strengthens your brand.

Ditch the buzzword

The easiest way to build thought leadership is to actually lead. Don’t just lean on that phrase without having anything concrete to back it up.

When you’re building relationships with journalists and with other experts across your industry, backing up a public presence with thoughtful and insightful content through blogging, contributed content and a social media presence is a winning strategy.

You don’t even need to use the phrase ‘thought leadership’ to succeed at thought leadership.

Show; don’t tell. It’s a cliché, but there’s a reason it’s a classic.

What is your take on thought leadership, PR Daily readers? Should we call it something else?

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. A version of this article originally appeared on the Spin Sucks blog.

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COMMENT

2 Responses to “Why ‘thought leadership’ is a buzzword PR pros should retire”

    Scott Stapf says:

    We generate 100+ op-eds a year, most of them in the context of “thought leadership.” We get excellent placements because (1) we have great writers and (2) we insist that the op-eds focus on something new/emerging. I find that the art of excellent op-ed writing is being lost at the very point in time when thought leaders most need to break through the clutter — which is exactly the platform that an op-ed provides. One additional related observation, I find that most people who people knock “thought leadership” PR campaign elements are the ones least able to execute them. Rather than touting what they can do well, they knock what others do better. Still waiting for someone to land a client by going negative that way …

      Ted Kitterman says:

      I think the tactic obviously has value for PR pros. Offering your views is crucial–but should we be calling it “thought leadership”? Does the phrase turn people off? Is there a better way to frame what PR can do for a leader’s brand/visibility?

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