IABC World Conference: When Thought Leadership Goes Bad

As the International Association of Business Communicators World Conference moved into its third day in San Diego, IABC delegates had the opportunity to hear experts discuss a variety of strategies and tactics to improve their PR efforts, and the challenges involved in their deployment.

Rethinking Thought Leadership
Ned Lundquist, principal science writer for MCR LLC in Arlington, VA, outlined both the value—and perils—of thought leadership positioning in his session “When ‘Thought Leadership’ Isn’t: The Oxymoron of ‘Subject Matter Experts.’”

While identifying some past and present notable and effective thought leaders such as Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Martha Stewart and Steve Jobs, Lundquist also mentioned William Swanson, CEO of Raytheon, as an example of thought leadership gone wrong. In 2006, Swanson published a book on management techniques—a widely used thought leadership tactic. However, parts of it were plagiarized from a book written in 1944. The incident not only damaged Raytheon’s reputation, but Swanson was docked $1 million by the company for his content “oversight.”

The best ways to position thought leaders? Lundquist said they shouldn’t be selling a product—they should take some sort of strong position in their industry. In addition, “They must be able to extend an idea beyond the obvious,” he said. 

Strong Branding Through Taglines
For many companies, smart taglines have been a branding mainstay—think American Express and “Don’t Leave Home Without It” or Maxwell House and “Good Till the Last Drop.” But strong taglines can also benefit smaller brands—both consumer and B2B, said Bob Killian, head of Chicago-based Killian Branding. 

Killian’s key tips: Create a tagline that doesn’t talk about your business, but refers to what it can do for others; and look more at how it can resonate with prospects more than current customers. 

Killian went on to say that two brain chemicals come into play when humans respond to messaging: epinephrine and serotonin.  “A good dose of adrenaline makes things memorable,” said Killion. “So try to communicate a little conflict, sex, danger or joy.”

Communicating a Cause
Those specific emotions didn’t quite come into play during Sheryl WuDunn’s Tuesday keynote, but certainly other strong feelings did. WuDunn, author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, detailed her efforts to help women and girls around the world. WuDunn said that borrowing techniques from the corporate world—such as microfinance—is helping to reshape humanitarian efforts. Yet she also said that many projects fail, and it takes much trial and error to achieve success.

WuDunn stressed the advantages for organizations to take on cause initiatives. Among them: improved corporate culture, a better sense of organizational purpose and improved employee morale. 

  • Craig Badungs

    One of the few instances I know of where thought leadership has gone bad. In most instances thought leadership is a very powerful tool to differentiate your brand and make a truly lasting impression on your clients and prospects.

  • Ned Lundquist, ABC

    I would suppose being featured in this article would help elevate me to “thought leader” status. However, I no longer work for Anteon Corporation, which was acquired in 2006 by General Dynamics; nor Alion Science and Technology, which acquired part of Anteon from GD; nor the Washington Consulting Government Services wholly-owned subsidiary of Alion which I joined in 2010, and which was acquired by MCR later that year. Per the program, “Edward “Ned” Lundquist, ABC / Virginia, USA, is a principal science writer for MCR LLC in Arlington, VA. He is an award-winning communicator and has experience in military, commercial, nonprofit and government contracting assignments. He has written numerous professional and trade publication articles and is past chair of IABC’s accreditation council.”

  • Scott Van Camp

    Ned, thanks for pointing this out. We apologize for the error.

  • Bill Spaniel, ABC

    A five-minute video of excerpts from Lundquist’s presentation is available on my YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/BillSpaniel