Are Thought-Leadership Bylines No Longer Delivering? Here’s How They Can

As we know, there's a lot of pressure on PR. This pressure makes communicators consider which PR tools still provide value. Is a standby of PR–the thought-leadership essay–becoming obsolete?

Am I a pessimist? Actually no, the majority perceive thought leadership with disdain. 71 percent of decision-makers say fewer than half the thought leadership they consume offers valuable insight. And 85 percent of B2B decision-makers feel thought-leadership content is low quality. Just 15 percent rate most thought leadership as very good or excellent.

Has the quality of thought-leadership bylines decreased so much that they no longer produce effective returns? Are there better ways for PR pros to spend their time?

Spoiler alert: as one who’s written the article you're reading—my answer is, unsurprisingly, that thought-leadership bylines remain valuable. But only when done well.

What’s wrong?

Part of the problem stems from over-pitching.

For example, say you pitch many trade publications. Each publication has a slightly different readership and viewpoint. But you write the pitch and the article once. When the pitch is accepted, you tweak the essay modestly. The result is an article that isn’t a tailored fit for the outlet's readership.

In another scenario, un-professional authors tweak their original several times for multiple publications. The published article is earnestly presented as exclusive in several outlets. In some cases harried editors miss the deception. In addition, outlets are content-starved. Standards decline.

Another issue mixes pressure on PR pros and a lack of understanding from executives. The executives obviously love and believe in their products. But some lack the understanding that a thought-leadership byline isn’t an advertisement.

So, the essays they produce are heavily promotional. Some publications reject them, although some don't. The result is an overtly sales-y byline that few enjoy reading.

Plus, there's a lot expected of bylined articles. Besides offering insightful, relevant thought leadership, they must:

  • rank high for SEO keywords
  • chunk easily into Twitter-friendly paragraphs and
  • be brand-friendly enough to keep those we represent happy

Few bylines can do all those things. When they try, they fall short of accomplishing anything.

Last, it’s rare when a thought leader writes the article. Moreover, most ghostwriters lack the executive's industry expertise and knowledge. Too often, that deficiency shows in lackluster articles.

How do we make bylines deliver?

As you know, a bylined article should establish the supposed author as a thought leader. It should build trust between the reader, writer and publication. On the PR side, it should increase the writer's and company's profile and ideally produce ROI.

So, let’s discuss how thought-leadership bylines can do all that.

Focus on relationships

An in-house team or PR agency should feel confident enough in its relationship with an executive that seeking additional industry knowledge for an article isn't a huge ask. Moreover, the relationship should allow communicators to push back against overly promotional messaging. Frequently education is the answer.

Good thought-leadership happens when the writer gets expert input from an insider and PR pros help steer executive-writers clear of too much promotion.

Go slowly

Next, feel free to decompress. Publishing several mediocre bylined articles isn't the objective. A thoughtful approach is better. Create a superior article custom fit for a publication’s readers.

Remember, the goal isn’t getting the byline published—it’s having decision-makers read and respect it, possibly resulting in business for the writer's company. Set expectations for the executive accordingly.


Finally, let the article's strength–thought leadership–shine. It’s tempting to optimize an article for SEO and social media. Yet, as noted above, thought-leadership bylines work best when they focus on interesting, engaging commentary from an expert.

Many publications offer an SEO benefit when they allow a link to the author's company's site. While it’s not as effective as optimizing an article for a particular keyword, making SEO considerations subordinate to editorial quality renders an essay far more readable.

In sum, thought-leadership bylines are a key component of an effective PR strategy. We just need to get back to doing them well.

Stephen Marcinuk is co-founder of Intelligent Relations

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]