Thought leadership is really a subset of reputation management, in that you are positioning the organization as a leader and an innovator. More commonly, though, it refers to shaping the reputation of executives at an organization, positioning them as forward-thinking experts in their field.
Some of the tactics you can employ to achieve this include bylined articles, earned media coverage, industry awards, Op-Eds, social media, speaking opportunities, think pieces, and white papers. The goal is to get their name, views, and work out there, establishing their reputation as an expert, innovator, leader, thinker, visionary, etc.
I have experience using all of these tools to build and shape the reputation of executives and establish them as thought leaders. And in doing so, by elevating executives and similarly showcasing a company’s research and development expertise (as I did for Advanced Elastomer Systems, for example) or other pioneering work (as I also did for Advanced Elastomer Systems), I have helped to position an entire company as a thought leader.
How to Establish Thought Leadership
The first key to establishing thought leadership is having a point of view that is not only clear and concise but also valuable and credible. And by valuable and credible I mean that there is some fresh viewpoint and a genuine level of expertise. The executive cannot simply think they are an expert or that their thoughts are revolutionary. These will be tested, and vetted, and if this is not the case, then the experience will likely do their reputation more harm than good.
The second key is to understand that it is a process, and one that takes time and effort. Thought leadership is earned, crafted, and built – step by step. Develop a point of view, and then prove it is successful – both with the company’s bottom line as well as with industry awards (which you can’t win if you don’t enter, so set up a system to do so).
Once you have that point of view, and proven its worth, start sharing thoughts and insights through bylined articles, earned media coverage, Op-Eds, social media, think pieces, and white papers. And while you are doing that, start pursuing speaking opportunities, and then merchandise those – from inviting key customers, prospects, and the media to sharing the content with those same audiences afterwards – to maximize their impact.
Challenges & Opportunities
I have often wondered why speaking opportunities tend to be the most sought-after vehicle for establishing thought leadership. I can only surmise that this is because executives may assume that they will be the ones who have to write the bylined articles, Op-Eds, think pieces, or white papers – which presumably seems more of a challenge (in terms of effort as well as time) than getting up and speaking in front of people, which is something most senior executives have become comfortable with. Of course, I am likely to be the one writing all of those things, including their speeches, so this shouldn’t be a concern.
In reality, though, speaking opportunities are actually one of the toughest challenges. Most events are booked up to a year in advance, so there is a long lead time. Plus, there is usually a lot of competition, with only a handful of keynote opportunities in a given industry each year, so executives often have to settle for panel and roundtable appearances until the right opportunity arises (or they happen to do something genuinely extraordinary).
In the meantime, the focus should be on the rest of those tactics, because having an executive’s thoughts and views published is arguably the best way to make them an attractive candidate for speaking opportunities. Event organizers are more comfortable booking someone who is a known entity and already established as a thought leader.
The biggest challenge a communications professional will likely face in establishing thought leadership is when the request is born out of ego rather than expertise. That is to say, when a client or executive wants more attention than their experience, expertise, and POV warrants.
Fortunately, the internet has given us abundant ways to solve this challenge. You can write and share think pieces for them on the company blog as well as on LinkedIn, Medium, and other social media platforms. And given the way the internet has transformed the media, not only are traditional outlets hungrier for content – such as bylined articles along with interviews and other earned media coverage – there are now a lot more outlets to choose from, including things like blogs, podcasts, and even online forum AMAs.
However, as I noted earlier, if the executive doesn’t have a genuinely valuable and worthy point of view, these experiences can do their reputation (and yours, as the communications professional who pitched them) more harm than good. While the internet provides many more opportunities, it can also be exceptionally – and enduringly – brutal to those who make mistakes, such as someone claiming to be a visionary when they are not.