It’s time. Gather around, public relations practitioners and other marketing types. Bring your friends in content, and while you’re about it, bring the journalists and editors too. We need to have a serious talk about thought leadership.
Why? Because for a term that is bandied about with reckless abandon, there is very little consensus about what a ‘thought leadership’ article is.
As an independent writer, I’m placed at a very interesting nexus, where editorial, content, advertising and public relations meet. Editors and content managers on one end, and PRs and content managers (who often handle advertorial, or so-called native content) on the other, often call on people like me to write thought leadership articles for other people.
And therein lies the first problem. If I have to write your ‘thought leadership’ for you – from cobbled-together information on the internet, usually, then you’re not much of a thought leader – and I am not writing a thought leadership piece.
I have written so many of these kinds of pieces, for so many clients – without once talking to the person whose opinion is allegedly being espoused – and I have no expertise in their field whatsoever. And I know I can’t be the only one.
So what does good thought leadership look like? Well, the clue’s in the name. I think a true thought leader needs to be an expert in their field and industry. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, preferably they need to be the expert. And if they aren’t, they need to have such a good grasp of their industry, so much deep insight and insider knowledge, that they can make us think about current trends, issues and challenges in an entirely new way, and persuade us by the end of the piece that they are, in fact the pre-eminent expert, and have just knocked someone else off that perch before our very eyes.
Sometimes it helps to think of something in terms of what it isn’t. Therefore, PRs, thought leadership is NOT your client simply giving their opinion on something. I’m not sure who said it first, but opinions are like a**holes – everyone has one. At best, most of the thought leadership out there falls under the ambit of op-eds. Even then, most are so wishy-washy and filled with ‘key messaging’ or bland marketing- speak, and they play it so safe, that they don’t offer any value to the reader at all.
To move a piece from op-ed to thought leadership, we need – if I may use that hackneyed word – disruption. Disrupt our thinking. Come at it from an entirely new angle. Lead us down a new pathway.
And frankly, people who want to publish thought leadership on any topic, need to write it themselves. By all means get a writer to help you smooth your syntax, check the logic and flow, edit so it’s not too wordy or too long, and dot your i’s and cross your t’s. But write the damn thing yourself.
If you can’t do that, at the very least, spend an hour talking it through with the writer in question, and giving them the content to reshape, and then work with them till you produce something powerful together . This is not a job for your PR agency, nor for your run-of-the-mill rent-a-writer. Your breadth of expertise and experience are what are required here, so if you’re not the best writer, work with someone who has the same level of expertise and experience with writing hard-hitting copy.
And finally, for the editors and content managers who are asking journalists for pieces that are 600 hundred words long and require input from three different sources, minimum, that ain’t thought leadership either. It’s a mini-feature at best, and I’m trying to be kind. What you’re really asking for is the print equivalent of vox pops – there isn’t space to look at at anything in any kind of depth with those parameters, and your readers are poorer for it.