Tip Sheet: Many ‘Thought Leaders,’ Few Authentic Opinions

If you work at an agency and got a call from your client recently about your thought leadership capabilities, consider yourself right in step with an important new trend. The thought leadership landscape is shifting. Organizations today need more from their PR firms in this critically important area of strategic communications. We, as an industry, need to refresh our thinking about how we can do it faster, smarter and more cost-effectively.

The biggest change is that the evolving world of media (conventional, social, mobile) has made it more challenging for organizations to claim a share of voice, whatever the means being used. That’s raised the bar for thought leadership programs.

Two forces are at work driving this trend: First, conventional media is shifting away from reporting the “news.” In order to re-create their own relevance, mainstream news outlets are becoming platforms for “branded” columnists to advance personal opinions. One look at Tim e, Newsweek, Forbes and Fortune demonstrates this.

Second, social media, for better or worse, has democratized public discourse. Anyone with an opinion can now capture mind share. More than that, even someone relatively anonymous can become wildly if only briefly influential. Witness Greg Smith at Goldman Sachs, the ultimate mouse that roared.

What does this mean for clients’ thought leadership strategies? Simply put: Everyone, these days, seems to be a thought leader—which, of course, means that no one is or, rather, not everyone can be one.


How, then, to stand apart? Here is a set of core principles to keep in mind:

• Thought leadership is an investment in obtaining and deploying influence. Real and meaningful influence is difficult to achieve.

• With influence also comes responsibility.

• If your thinking can’t be completely original, make it as authentic as possible.


Roll it all up and you have the foundation for a set of practically focused best practices:

â–¶ The Practice of (Realistic) Goal Setting: The client’s goal must be reconciled with what’s realistic to achieve in a given time frame. Clients typically can see that their routine corporate announcements have limitations as news, but then when it comes to their own opinions it’s another story. They tend to benchmark the achievable based on the publications they read, like The Wall Street Journal. But placing an op-ed there isn’t necessarily a realistic short-term goal—unless you’re Warren Buffett. Influence through thought leadership is something most mortal people build over time.

There’s a tendency by some clients to use social media as a faster route to thought leadership success. But that’s not necessarily the solution. If The Wall Street Journal is an exclusive club for opinion leaders, then social media is the mosh pit. Dive in if you’d like but be prepared for anything.

All of which makes the decision by The New York Times to run Smith’s op-ed so fascinating. Not so long ago the editors at the Times wouldn’t have touched it. But in today’s converging world of media they probably salivated at the opportunity. Why? Smith could have put it on Dealbreaker and in a heartbeat it would have gone viral. This is the Times slouching toward the new realities of influence.

â–¶ The Practice of Authenticity With Responsibility: The fastest way to an editor’s heart is to craft an intellectually authentic set of opinions, cogently argued and linked to the news of the time. Easier said than done. Authenticity in a media world crammed with opinion isn’t easy to achieve.

There’s a tendency to use provocative ideas and statements to break through the din. But authenticity is something different. It’s the insight not sufficiently considered, at least not in reasonable and refreshing terms. Demagoguery is the opposite: It’s the appeal to dark thoughts and emotions. Authentic thought leadership is also responsible in what it motivates people to think about, believe and do.

â–¶ The Practice of Constituency-Focused Strategic Thinking: I knew the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies who was knighted by the queen of England. There was only one publication he wanted to cover this honor: his local, hometown newspaper. Why? Because its readers were the people he wanted to impress. That is lower case “s” strategic thinking. But he knew just who he wanted to influence. PRN


Montieth M. Illingworth is president of Montieth & Company, a communications consultancy. He can be reached at montieth@montiethco.com.