In my posting last August 12, I cited Annie Fisher’s Fortune.com column on Business Buzzwords That Make You Gag and the list included the phrase “thought leader.” Before we completely dismiss the phrase, though, it deserves a fair hearing.
What is thought leadership and how is it used? The article, “Thought Leadership - More Than a Catchy Phrase for PR Professionals” in the February-March 2005 issue of PR Influences provides the answers.
According to the article, thought leadership is a personal position centered on the company spokesperson and could be a means to portray the company as informative, innovative, challenging and relevant to current industry issues and challenges. The spokesperson should, thus, be committed to:
- be up-to-date on issues being covered by media;
- have innovative views;
- be prepared to receive criticism; and
- be available for media and for activities related to thought leadership.
Among the activities to be handled by the company spokesperson are:
- Media engagements: Informal meetings to discuss current topics and issues with editors and key journalists are undertaken to familiarize them with what he or she can comment on when they are writing their articles.
- Speaking opportunities: He or she can maximize these to communicate directly with customers and prospects.
- Media Requests: Media asks for opinions or quotes for articles.
The company could also produce written materials as thought leadership tools, among these:
- Case studies: Written reports following the three-step process of “situation, solution and results” and showing how the company helped solve a problem or gained a competitive edge.
- White papers: Written reports following the three-step process of “problem, process and payoff” and showing the company’s vision and product strategy.
- Opinion pieces: By-lined articles presenting a unique view of a current problem or issue.
With people using the Web increasingly to get information, a company’s thought leadership program should include:
- The company website: Written materials of the thought leadership program should be made readily available on the corporate website, presented in a manner consistent with the company spokesperson.
- Company blogs: If there are blogs on the company’s industry and on the issues it has to challenge or champion, the company should consider creating its own blog to make materials available for discussion.
The thought leadership program should, therefore, be a comprehensive program of activities budgeted for in terms of written materials and spokesperson time.
Perhaps what turns most people off with the phrase is the undertone of superiority and condescension. Reading through the PR Influences article, my impression is that a thought leader is simply an effective communicator.