Breaking Down the Failure ...


Communicators have picked up the thought leadership religion.

With demand for product news similar to Vote-Hillary T-shirts, many have figured out that thought leadership can bring salvation, a door opener to media coverage.Hillary 2016 I'll Dab to That T-ShirtYet, for all the talk about thought leadership, there can be a huge gap between the theory and what happens on the execution side.


Let’s start with the first word, “thought.” I think I’m on safe ground in concluding that all organizations have thoughts.

So far so good.

But things start to break down when we add that pesky second word “leadership.” It’s not enough to just have thoughts. Leadership infers that a company and its people articulate a fresh way of looking at its industry or an issue.

This cuts to the core of the failure. Most companies implement what amounts to “thought followship.” They simply repeat perspectives that have already been expressed or offer up vanilla points of view. Even worse, some will dress up self-promotion as thought leadership.

As they say on sports talk radio — “Hey, this is Salty from San Jose. We need to trade Kevin Durant for a scorer who doesn’t get injured all the time” — have a take.

Contrary to popular belief, journalists in the spirit of objectivity try to stay away from the middle ground. Instead, they’re serving up different perspectives in stories that often take on the form of a car battery, one plus charge and one negative charge.

You’re either for it or against it.

What’s in between isn’t all that interesting.

You can see how this plays out in real life with radio hosts like Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh and their impressive audiences. I’m not saying that thought leadership must be polarizing to the point of jarring the senses like a Stern or a Limbaugh.

Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh chart

But thought leadership does mean offering a different point of view.

Most of our clients come from the tech sector where it’s common for CEOs and other executives to hail from engineering backgrounds. When it comes to thought leadership, they can gravitate toward the middle ground thinking that’s the safe place. In a way, they’re right. Their viewpoints are less likely to attract ridicule and criticism. But again, it’s the worst place if you hope to insert your voice into media coverage because it doesn’t fit the construction of today’s stories.

Positive or negative.

A car battery doesn’t have a neutral charge.

Still, it’s tough for some execs to take this leap and deliver a point of view that a) says something new and b) stays away from the middle ground.

I consciously avoid the Agency’s work in this blog, but decided to make an exception today in showing what effective thought leadership looks like in the real world.

Instead of trying to compete head-on in the PR battles at Mobile World Congress, NXP took the high ground on the issue of security in IoT devices.


NXP Forbes article

Companies often ignore thought leadership opportunities that explore broad business issues. In the case of Lifesize, a client in the videoconferencing space, a campaign spoke is devoted to the topic of serving the customer.

Lifesize small business trends article

Avast conducted an experiment at the Republican National Convention last year, setting up free Wi-Fi networks to see if attendees would ignore security concerns and expose their identities. They did.

Avast USA Today coverage

It takes a certain amount of finesse to go from home fitness equipment to commenting on the nutritional value of McDonald’s Happy Meals (oh, the irony in the name). Yet, that’s exactly what Nautilus did in landing commentary from one of its fitness experts on Fox News.

Nautilus FOX News article

When it comes to thought leadership and speaking out, I’d like to think we’re the cobbler’s kids who actually have shoes. In an interview last November, I discussed the need for PR to have strength of conviction, a problem that Asian cultures magnify.

Mumbrella Asia article

Very different examples.

Yet, they share one common denominator. They express a point of view while staying away from a product narrative.


  • Daily PR Brief - Wed 03/29/17 - ITK Blog

    […] 29, 2017) Six Ways to Use Social Listening in Crisis Planning (Spin Sucks – March 29, 2017) Breaking Down the Failure of Thought Leadership (Ishmael’s Corner – The Hoffman Agency &… The Growing Value of Surprise and Delights (SHIFT Communications – March 29, 2017) Infinite […]


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