Thought leader's new clothes

Over the last few years, the term Thought Leadership has been used extensively in PR and Marketing circles. Personally, I have been bothered by the over-use of the term - and when I follow the discussions on several PR professional forums I notice I am not the only one.

Thought Leadership marketing is said to date back to the 1960’s to the McKinsey Quarterly Report. Good marketers have always been building their communications on leading thoughts, technologies/know-how or personalities. Initially we probably used a number of terms and expressions, such as content marketing – before we realised that Thought Leadership is a concept that is highly appealing to senior managers – who would not want to be a thought leader?

The recent hype around Thought Leadership marketing has been a good money maker for the marketing and communications industry. Everyone can learn how to establish a thought leadership position – and numerous publications and consultancy hours have been spent on “How to Become a Thought Leader in 10 Easy Steps”.  Try searching “thought leadership marketing” and start counting the numbers of books and consultancies – you see what I mean.

If everyone is a thought leader, is there any value in being one?

The term itself has become poorly defined and over-assigned – anyone with some knowledge or opinion can present themselves as a thought leader. Obviously, the new (democratic) social media channels that enable us to reach out to publics directly are making it even more attractive.

I don't know about you, but in recent years I have not seen a communications plan that does not include the specific aim to "position ourselves as a Thought Leader".

This appears to indicate that everyone wants to 1) "position themselves as a Thought Leader"; 2) become one; or 3) leverage their Thought Leadership position. Nothing wrong with numbers 2) and 3) – but unfortunately the 1st one is getting frighteningly popular. No one dares to leave these words out – even if they are not currently a Thought Leader or even have the potential to become one.

 “Nothing left of your communications plan if you take out the words Thought Leadership?  Don’t worry. They are only a couple of words. Just like the infamous new clothes.”

Take a step back

For Thought Leadership you need a) thought and b) leadership. Unfortunately there are no 5 or even 10 step programs that will make anyone a true Thought Leader. Thought Leadership is more a position that is earned by unique thoughts, a track record built over time and with 3rd party recognition. It is an ongoing responsibility – not a marketing offensive.

Let's ask ourselves:

  • Can you become a thought leader by self-nomination? – no.
  • Is there any worth in using self-nomination tactics in your marketing? – yes.
  • Should we call it thought leadership – maybe not.

So should you get depressed and retire if your organisation has no leading thoughts or thoughtful leaders? Of course not. Remember that not everyone is a Thought Leader and not everyone should aspire to be seen as one.

What can you do? You should still continue to make the most from the excellence you do have in your organisation, using both self-nomination tactics and 3rd party referrals to make yourself known to your audiences. Actively promoting yourself and participating in industry discussions both online and at events and conferences, profiling your experts and nurturing your relationships to industry influencers, such as media, bloggers and analysts are important building blocks of your public relations activities.

Just be careful with the expression Thought Leader – if you are still wondering if you truly are one, you might need to apply different communication methods compared to those you can leverage when you have a true Thought Leadership position. Remember, you are raising the bar - and the expectations of your organisation - very high by setting an objective like “gaining a Thought Leadership position”.

I would suggest that when you draw up a communication plan, it makes sense to carefully consider if there is real Thought Leadership potential to build on. Of course, your management wants to use the term extensively and can’t wait to use it in press releases, interviews and on websites. But your company’s credibility may be at risk – and you/your management may be severely disappointed when you claim to be a Thought Leader only to find that you are not. Customers, competitors and editors like to make up their own minds about this type of positioning.

And what if you are truly a Thought Leader? Then you have no need to worry – your position is strong. It’s the self-nominated Thought Leaders who will not stand the test of time. 


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