Dan Garza
Dan Garza

Thought leadership has become an increasingly bigger buzzword around Silicon Valley. Tech PR pros are learning that it’s an excellent avenue to publicize their companies and gain favor with their bosses at the same time. In short, the idea behind thought leadership is to have top tech executives talk about the ills and issues in their industries and how they can be improved. That way, they can build an aura of technology leadership, authority and customer trust by letting their audiences know that their companies have the answers to their product development problems.

That may be a rather simple explanation. However, the big question is how are tech companies and PR pros going about creating that thought leadership and are those approaches jelling?

The right way

Common sense says the correct approach to developing a thought leadership program is to first engage with your company’s executives. That’s assuming the exec is willing to cooperate, collaborate and participate. Find out what their thinking is about the industries their company is engaging with; what are the pros and cons, the strengths and shortcomings, the issues and how to correct them. Foster a good working and collaborative relationship with them and build mutual respect. Make a list of their major industry perspectives and their thinking along those lines. Conduct interviews with execs and start ghosting their byline thought leadership articles, blogs, speeches and other appropriate content.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Nov. '22 Technology PR Magazine
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But that’s not always the case

Meanwhile, some tech companies are deploying various ways of performing their thought leadership and, in so doing, some of those approaches create unnecessary and time-consuming complexities, misunderstandings and, in short, ineffective ways to achieve thought leadership. Some of the more effective include speaker bureaus with execs giving talks at industry conferences. Others prefer to fill their company websites with executive blogs. Still, others take the business and trade press route to get their thought leadership byline articles published.

From the ineffective side, some companies rely on the multi-level approach. In other words, lots of people are involved. For instance, one marketer starts out deciding on several possible topics for the exec’s thought leadership article. This list goes to the second level of individuals—perhaps a select committee of corporate communications leaders or marketing people. Their assignment is to “scrub” that list of topics, meaning check it out to see if they think that’s what they want the exec to say.

Then it goes to the PR agency for further review. And perhaps, a new list of subjects originates there. But once a subject is selected, the PR pro ghostwriter is tasked to conduct research with his or her findings as the basis for writing the thought leadership piece. And fingers are crossed that the exec will like it and approve it.

This is where the top corporate communications exec comes into the picture to meet with that company exec to validate the piece and, in effect, convince the top exec it’s a good article and should be placed for publication. And that’s a roll of the dice.

What about the exec’s say so?

Throughout this multi-level process, the most important missing element is the executive’s viewpoint, meaning what he or she wants to say about a particular industry subject. Instead, that subject is hashed over by a marketing committee and produced in that manner. In effect, it becomes a faux-thought leadership or worse, a paid advertorial in some cases, and the reading customer audience is deceived into believing these are honest and true words coming from a perceived industry leader.

There are other flaws associated with this multi-level thought leadership process. Foremost is that the PR pro ghostwriter becomes the subject matter expert and not the executive. Having others select the topic in committees is a hit-or-miss approach. Chances are high the exec may not want to have his or her byline associated with a particular subject or article.

This method eliminates the value proposition and messaging that are critical in each published article or blog. Also, there are people’s time and cost. Meanwhile, the PR agency stands to gain considerable client billing since projects like this are extended timewise as a general practice.

Even if you’re dealing with an exec

You may be fortunate enough to get one-on-one sessions with the exec to uncover what he or she wants to say. Granted, an executive has been elevated to that position in large part due to his or her vast experience in a particular industry. So, it follows that person has an extensive reservoir of beliefs and industry information he or she may want to impart.

At this juncture, the PR pro has to be savvy enough to first see a lay of the land, so to speak, to get an understanding of the thought leadership executives. You have to take into account the types of personalities you’re about to deal with. Here are some of the most prominent.

There’s the “no risk taker.” The bigger the company, the greater risk for the exec to be exposed via a bylined piece to potential criticism by his board members or investors. So, the exec weighs every word, lest they be criticized and ostracized, thereby jeopardizing his standing in the company.

Next is the fast, verbose, continuous talker, hard to nail down his/her most salient remarks; he or she jumps from one topic to the next and then has one story buried in another story. Then, at the end, they complain that the produced byline article doesn’t reflect what he or she said during the sourcing meeting.

Then there’s the exec who doesn’t know the subject, relies on others to provide information and then doesn’t like what is being written for his or her byline. A similar personality is the exec who is never pleased with what’s written for them, although he or she provided the information for their byline article to the PR pro ghostwriter.

Of course, there’s the exec who’s close to a particular subject and knows it very well but feels there’s not much interest in that subject among his/her target audiences. So, they don’t want to pursue it, when you, the PR pro, know full well the subject in question hasn’t had much public exposure in the industry.

Finally, there are execs who don’t want to be bothered with marketing but want to deal solely with sales. In other cases, marketing executives simply shield execs from the PR pro ghostwriter because those execs are “oh, so busy” to be bothered by a lowly PR pro.

Despite these barriers, it’s wise for PR pros to move into thought leadership because there are execs who are knowledgeable, cooperative and willing to take the time to work with you. Once you have access to a cooperative exec, you can assure them that you’ll only take a minimum of his valuable time.

Also, these are the real-world caveats cited above when you decide thought leadership needs to be part of your PR plan. However, one has to be optimistic when mapping out your strategy. Keep in mind that once you team up with a cooperative and knowledgeable executive, you’ve overcome a major hurdle. From this point on, your thought leadership projects will jell.


Dan Garza is a marketing PR professional and veteran observer of Silicon Valley PR.