How to Write a Bylined Article for the Boss

John Roderick
John Roderick

There once was a time when only professors and think-tank fellows needed to worry about the “publish or perish” phenomenon. Now, with everything from Klout scores to Twitter followers factoring into the brand value equation, to boot, the need to feed the content beast has seldom been greater for senior business leaders.

With more publications accepting contributions from industry experts and easy access to self-publishing on company websites or blogs, there are several outlets for executive pontification. That’s if those executives can write.

The problem is: Most senior executives got to where they are by crunching numbers and delivering a killer PowerPoint, not crafting the perfect Op-Ed piece. So, the PR and marketing folks are brought in to help. This is where things get a little tricky.

The three parties typically involved in the ghostwriting process each have different motives, none of which are perfectly aligned.

Marketers are trained to keep the focus on the brand; PR professionals are conditioned to keep the focus on the news and senior execs are programmed to keep the focus on themselves and their people.

Getting all three to agree on 750 words of copy requires no small amount of diplomacy.

Fortunately, some of us have been through the exercise enough to spot potential pitfalls before they sink the project. Having learned the hard way, following is a five-step process for how not to screw up an expert byline:

  • Manage Expectations Before You Start Writing: Say the words “Op-Ed” or “expert byline” in a meeting and half the room will think about Don Draper “quitting tobacco,” and the other half will have scary flashbacks to English Composition 101. Both can set you up for failure. The perfect byline pitch starts internally with a clear outline that lays-out the headline theme, key data points, division of labor and desired outcomes before you solicit feedback.
  • Target your audiences (realistically) and write for them: It is a proven phenomenon that once an executive’s name is appended to a Microsoft Word document, someone will suggest that it should be published in The Wall Street Journal. The targeting step is therefore critical for expectation alignment and writing style direction.

    An A-, B- and C-list of targets should be developed, each with a clear set of style requirements and audience profiles to ensure that the message is conveyed at the right level. Equally important, senior leadership must be educated on the benefits of each beforehand so the eventuality of C-list placement doesn’t feel like a consolation prize.


  • Say it with data: Consider the impact of these two lines: 1) Corporate bylines are the mother’s milk of sustainable thought leadership strategies, and 2) By developing a byline-focused communications strategy, one of our clients increased its total number of media citations by 110% in a year, generating more than 13,000 press mentions in 2012 alone. They’re both important, but the second one offers tangible results. Carefully curated facts, not taglines or marketing messages, need to be at the center of a byline for it to be effective.


  • Avoid ‘Advertorial Creep’: Death by a thousand cuts, editing by committee, advertorial creep. Call it what you will, but when too many people have their hands on the “track changes” button, the quality of the content rarely improves. The first tip-off is jargon. Maybe an eager-to-please marketing manager adds the phrase “platform agnostic solutions provider,” or “bleeding-edge technologies.” For the process to work, a strike team of two to three people max need to have final edit on the document, bringing in additional opinions for review only.


  • Alert potential stakeholders prior to publication: We once learned that the corporate parent of one of our clients wanted to kill an Op-Ed we had written after it was accepted for publication on The New York Times ’ Opinion page. This is not the time to start angling for internal approvals. While it is tempting to go out quickly with a great story, it is also essential that you factor everyone who might be impacted, including corporate parents, sales execs and strategic partners.

The power to assert enormous influence also comes with the potential to provoke political suicide among those who put words in their bosses’ mouths for a living. With the right plan, however, it is possible to tilt the odds in favor of success. PRN


John Roderick is president of J. Roderick Inc. Follow him on Twitter: @john_roderick,