“Thought Leadership” vs “Thought ...


Commenting on an industry issue by itself does not constitute thought leadership. It’s simply a comment on an industry issue.

Before going further, I should acknowledge that this remark still has value. If the executive’s comment gains traction in social channels or appears in a publication, that helps to raise the visibility of the company, a good thing from a PR perspective.

But it’s not thought leadership.

True thought leadership delivers a fresh point of view, often running counter to the conventional way of thinking. True thought leadership pushes the discourse into unexpected terrain. True thought leadership causes the audience to dig deeper into the idea or react with defensiveness— some type of visceral response.

As clients increasingly want the world to perceive them as thought leaders — who wouldn’t want to be tagged as the next Jeff Bezos? — I’ve been noodling on the role that PR has in this equation.

PR can sanity check the platform to ensure that the executive hasn’t borrowed (accidentally of course) from someone else.

PR can offer counsel on whether the platform will resonate with the outside world and particularly with journalists.

PR can help the executive construct the platform, uncovering supporting data points and other forms of dot-connecting validation.

But the core concept underpinning the thought leadership campaign should come from the executive.

The chart below challenges executives and their supporting PR teams to land in the upper-right hand quadrant. It’s not easy.


Thought Leadership Quadrant


Thought, then Leadership

For all the talk about thought leadership, there’s often a sizable gap between the theory and what happens on the execution side.

Being a language geek, I’d like to break it down starting with that first word, “thought.” I believe I’m on safe ground in concluding that all organizations have thoughts.

So far so good.

But things begin to go sideways when we add that pesky second word, “leadership.” It’s not enough to just have thoughts. As shared earlier, leadership infers that the executive is articulating a different way to look at an industry or an issue.

Unfortunately, most executives are thought followers, landing in the lower-left hand quadrant, exactly where you don’t want to be. They regurgitate perspectives that have already been expressed or offer up vanilla points of view.


The Advantage of Size

Big brands can muscle into thought leadership in the lower-right hand quadrant — not necessarily saying anything new — by sheer force of will. An Apple example comes to mind.

In the spring of 2017 when Trump was pummeling the company for moving manufacturing jobs overseas, Apple fought back using a piece of owned media to hammer home the message that its overall ecosystem continues to create a massive number of jobs in the good ole U.S. of A.

Scrape of Apple job creation page

Yet, for mere mortals — not one of the biggest brands in the universe — to ascend into a thought leadership position requires saying something that causes others to rethink their positions and doing it with language that doesn’t dull the senses.


Walking the Walk, Talking the Talk

Most of our clients sit in the tech sector where it’s common for CEOs and other executives to hail from engineering backgrounds. When it comes to thought leadership, they tend to gravitate to the middle ground believing that’s the safe place. In a way, they’re right. Their viewpoints are less likely to attract ridicule and criticism.

Unfortunately, such thought followship doesn’t resonate with journalists (unless you’re a mega brand).

I’d like to think we’re the cobbler’s kids who actually have shoes when it comes to thought leadership.

Lou Hoffman thought leadership on storytelling in PR

Yes, I’ve taken a few arrows for this position and others.

Comes with the territory.

And I wear an arrow-proof vest.




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