Thought leadership can be a PR team’s biggest waste of time - if you make these mistakes


The Wikipedia definition of a thought leader - an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded – is straightforward enough.

Personalities like Tony Robbins or Gary Vaynerchuk clearly fit that bill and represent the gold standard when it comes to making your name as valuable (or more) than your actual work. Not everyone is destined to achieve that level of celebrity, of course. But even modest success – say, raising an executive’s profile in their industry enough that they are being called upon to write and speak – is well worth the effort.

There’s risk for PR teams who go down this road, however. To be successful, thought leadership requires an “all in” approach from PR teams and their business leaders, and in a planned and focused way. Anything less results in the worst-case scenario: devoting substantial time and effort and getting almost nothing in return, except maybe a tarnished reputation for inconsistency and for not getting the job done.

The good news is that like most traps, this is one that can be avoided, if you keep an eye out for the following warning signs:

1. You’re fighting for a seat at a table that has no seats left

I dare you to find someone in North America who is anti-innovation, who hates great customer service, or who desperately wants small businesses to fail.

By all means, tell the world about your passionate support for innovation or entrepreneurs. Just be aware that countless other organizations are right there with you, saying nearly identical things. As a result, you might be creating little of worth aside from some reading material for your business leads. By one estimate, there are more than 3 million people sharing content on LinkedIn each week alone. To get the attention of your audience, you need to have something new and interesting to say. Carve out a niche you can own, one that hasn’t already been done to death.

Need inspiration? Read this op-ed from Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario. The topic she discusses is unique, bold and leaves lots of room for storytelling, while also staying true to the company’s brand identity. If you must focus on something nebulous like “innovation,” then be sure drill down and find a niche or segment no one else is talking about. Just be interesting. If you can’t, then it might be time to rethink whether it’s worth continuing.

2. Your executive finds any excuse to not take part

Even the best, most creative thought leadership program is meaningless if you don’t have executive buy-in. And in my experience, buy-in by itself isn’t enough. Thought leaders by definition must have passion for what they stand for – it can’t be invented in a PR planning room and assigned to them, nor can a great topic overcome a lack of interest on their part.

If your executive isn’t the kind of person who can embrace the always-on demands of becoming a thought leader – committing to a steady stream of social activity, hitting the speaking circuit, taking part in media interviews – then you’re facing a very big challenge indeed.

If this sounds familiar, have a conversation. Is there a topic he or she would be excited about? Is there something that can be changed to better suit their strengths? Be realistic, and don’t settle for half-way measures. Landing a few bylines here and there while constantly cajoling someone into a few lukewarm LinkedIn posts does no one any good. If that’s the case, move on to more productive things.

3. What you’re doing isn’t thought leadership at all

Over the years I’ve worked with companies that wanted their names attached to the mobile revolution, the rise of social media, artificial intelligence and, more recently, blockchain. Sometimes they had a real story to tell, but more often, they used a tenuous link to piggyback on a trending topic to try and get a short-term brand boost.

This approach can yield brief results, but in the long-term it’s self-defeating as fad topics always disappear. This is, in fact, the very opposite of what true thought leadership is trying to achieve, which is a stable, long-term platform that can be owned and refined over time. Jumping from issue to issue won’t achieve much.

So, ask yourself if what you’re creating will stand the test of time, or speaks to an issue that is at the core of your industry. If it doesn’t, find something that will.

4. Everything hinges on one person

Here’s where it gets tricky. As I stated, effective thought leadership requires a passionate, well-spoken person to be the face and the voice. When they get results, that’s a good thing. But this comes with its own set of risks.

Consider Kristine Stewart, a true Canadian thought leader and a strong voice for women and leadership, who at various times has held positions at CBC, Twitter, Diply and most recently, TribalScale. Stewart represents the culmination of years of business success and advocating for issues about which she’s passionate. Her brand will continue to follow her throughout her career. Each employer reaps a halo benefit – until she moves on, that is.

As I said before, few people will achieve what people like Stewart has in terms of thought leadership, but it’s worth looking at your succession plan in this regard. If you have an executive who has a strong following and building a personal reputation, begin to think about what would happen if they left their role. Look at others who might be able step in and build their own brand, while supporting the overall platform you’re creating. This lessens the risk of putting everything on one person and helps make the issue you stand for more about the organization than any one person.

Have other tips to share, or something else to add around thought leadership? Share below!