Scott Davila and Christian Munson co-authored this article.
Company leaders and their marketing departments talk a lot about wanting to be thought leaders, but they often have a hard time getting there. Why? Not because they don’t know how, but because they don’t understand what thought leadership really is.
And if they do, many lack the stomach to take the risk.
Because of that, thought leadership has been hijacked by marketing and communications that educate, inform and reinforce the status quo, not challenge it.
Every year, businesses spend loads of time and money on developing “thought leadership” content. It comes in all shapes and sizes — from white papers and e-books, to webinars and infographics, to survey reports, videos and even cartoonish memes. If you take the time to engage with any of it, a large percentage is tactical, promotional and self-serving. It’s about how to do this and that, not about why.
There’s a time and place for this information, but it’s wrong to call it thought leadership.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Nov. '17 Technology PR Magazine
Strategic thought leadership isn’t about the how. It’s about leading an industry into a new, innovative and impactful approach to business. It understands the internal and external factors that will exist tomorrow and empowers your audiences by helping them see into the future and showing them greater possibilities.
Success requires meeting some important criteria.
Strength of purpose
It starts with communicating and delivering on a clearly defined purpose.
You must know in what direction your industry is moving, what problems will need to be solved and why it’s important to attack them with strategic intent every single day. Otherwise, there just isn’t a platform for leadership.
At our agency, our purpose is to help our clients connect with the people who matter most to them. We come to work every day to fulfill this mission so that our clients can be successful, grow their organizations, hire more talent and make a positive impact on the world.
Credibly fulfilling this purpose over decades gives us a platform for leadership. It allows our employee-owners to solve communications challenges in new ways, create tools like our Crisis IQ quiz and get ahead of the digital transformation that is changing how people connect and engage with information.
Apple’s purpose — to harness the power of technology, simplify its use and make it accessible — gave Steve Jobs a platform from which he could turn a computer company into a pioneering phone company. IBM’s long history of technological innovations enabled the company to lead its stakeholders into a new age of cognitive business. Lyft’s purpose to facilitate mobility gave John Zimmer a platform to revolutionize our transportation infrastructure.
Leadership implies leading somewhere, right? How are you going to build on your purpose and inspire stakeholders to do things differently? Better?
The core of thought leadership is challenging the status quo and sharing a vision about where the industry is heading. Let your competitors talk about the five things they learned at the latest industry conference. A thought leader shows the way forward.
When Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he didn’t just say that Apple was getting into the phone business. He said that everything we currently did on desktop computers (browse the Internet, send email, make purchases, watch videos, get directions, etc.) would soon be done on the little black rectangle he held in his hands. He called for a digital revolution and led the charge.
Leaders require followers, and followers don’t follow unless they believe what they see and hear from the brand out front. It’s not always a linear progression. Sometimes, employees, investors and customers believe because a company has delivered on its purpose for years. Other times, belief in a coming future happens first, opening doors for organizations to do things differently.
Would Apple have been successful changing the way people use cell phones if the personal computer hadn’t already transformed people’s expectations of technology? Or would IBM’s move to a cognitive business vision and services have worked if it hadn’t already paved the way for e-business two decades ago?
Thought leadership happens when a powerful purpose, a compelling vision of future fulfillment and people who believe in it, come together. That’s the sweet spot and the hardest part.
It takes guts
But don’t discount what comes next. Easy, it is not.
It takes guts for PR and marketing professionals to challenge their leadership to communicate new ways of doing things in a market comfortable with the way things are. That’s especially true if you’re the market leader, because you’re the status quo — and thought leaders question the status quo.
Naysayers and competitors also will spring up quickly to take carefully aimed shots at thought leaders. Those challenges will sting at best, and at worst, completely derail efforts to make change. Why mess with what’s already working? Thought leaders will be prepared for negative reactions and not be derailed.
In addition to thick skins, thought leaders also need their wallets.
Merely saying something doesn’t make it so. Companies articulating a bold vision of the future must invest in making it a present reality. Teams, processes and even products and services need to be recalibrated to align with the new vision. The marketplace needs to see actions being taken to pursue it. Smoke and mirrors are for magicians, not world changers.
Creating a thought leadership strategy is more than a messaging exercise parlayed into blog posts, speaking engagements and the well-placed op-ed. It needs to permeate the organization: operations, customer service, new product/service development, employee engagement, investor relations, etc. It takes strategic vision, courage and commitment to take risks and lead by actions, whether you’re out to change your company, your industry or the world.
Scott Davila is senior vice president and technology lead at Padilla. Christian Munson is senior director, corporate communications at Padilla.