how to build a reputation for thought leadership

The term "thought leadership" has become ubiquitous. I confess to being guilty of using the buzzword. I call myself a thought leader and tell people who ask what I do that I do thought leadership for a living. People seem to understand but I might just be talking to people in my industry or perhaps to the overly-polite. Years ago I defined "thought leadership" when I wrote a book about the importance of building CEO reputation by having something to say about the future instead of talking about your company's products. Fast forward to today and thought leadership is now morphing into content marketing. I like to think, however, that thought leadership is the better half of content marketing. Much of content marketing today is pushing out talk about your company and all the great things it is doing without thinking about whether it is new, interesting, useful, relevant and compelling. Building a reputation for thought leadership is about ideas that keep a company at the forefront of change. It should transcend sectors and geographic borders. It should...

  1. Enrich the company’s relationships with its key constituencies:  clients, prospective clients, opinion leaders, recruits, internal audiences, employees, media
  2. Make the world aware of new insights
  3. Build, support and sustain the company’s brand reputation
  4. Influence the industry agenda and own significant elements of it
  5. Be strongly identified with the future

Defining thought leadership is the subject of Michael Brenner's article in Forbes this week. Brenner is Vice President of SAP Global Marketing. His definition is as follows: "Thought Leadership is simply about becoming an authority on relevant topics by delivering the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience." He makes a good point in that great thought leadership comes from answering your customers' biggest questions. However, sometimes good ideas come from looking sideways or at where no one else is looking. I call it catching the wave. It is about catching the wave or the idea before it crests. Seeing the kernel of an idea when it is just emerging and not yet at its peak. Those provide the best content.

Here are Brenner's pointers for creating thought leadership from his thoughtful article on thought leadership. I found them very useful and will add to my deck on building a reputation for thought leadership (giving him credit of course):

  1. Identify the questions customers are asking. Prioritize them.
  2. Answer those questions across multiple formats and channels.
  3. "Give to get." In other words, don't make it hard to access.
  4. Make it interesting. Enjoyed his comment that thought leadership should have a "return on interesting."
  5. Invite customers to participate. Ask them to help you curate and produce great storytelling.

Getting to Likeable

I wanted to mention this terrific conference I went to last week. It was hosted by PRWeek and featured a stimulating array of speakers. Suzie Welch, author and journalist, spoke about how hard it is for companies to get themselves into the "conversation." She was thinking back to her days as editor of  Harvard Business Review and the many times CCOs would call with what they thought was an explosive idea:  “If you're coming in, trying to be a thought or idea leader, and you don't have the results to back it up, you're just beating against the wind. And it backfires later, because when you actually have something to talk about, you already have the stink on you from having tried to sell yourself too soon.” PRWeek has more on her talk. She mentioned that timing matters, having something uniquely new (Amazon's drone shipments), knowing how to exit the conversation if in crisis, authenticity and "likeability."  Suzie was incredibly likeable herself and appeared very approachable and "real." Seems odd that she is so accomplished but goes by what I presume is her grade-school name, Suzie.  When it comes to thought leadership, she also reminded the crowd of mostly senior pr professionals how critical it was to have the courage to tell your CEO when their breakthrough idea might just not be ready for prime time. After all, as Suzie said, there are very few new ideas in the business today. I think we'd all agree. Of course, she brought up the topic of CEO celebrity. She was right in saying that no CEO starts out saying they want to be a CEO celebrity. It just happens because everyone wants to know about them. Richard Branson was mentioned as a good example of an individual who became a celeb CEO in service of his brand, Virgin.

Dan Roth, executive editor of LinkedIn, gave some fascinating examples on how CEOs were posting on LinkedIn's influential Influencer Program  and how they eventually find their authentic, human voice after some false starts. He used Prime Minister David Cameron as an example of a leader who over time went from third person to first person in his posts. Roth also mentioned how some CEOs were big on asking for feedback when they submitted their posts. His comment reminded me of a CEO who continually asks anyone within earshot how his company was doing in the marketplace.  What was the word on the street? It was a terrific signal that he was interested in hearing as much as talking. Roth ended his talk with some fine advice about the Influencer program -- CEOs should realize that they "are not creating content, they are creating conversation."  We all sometimes focus too much on content and getting our corporate message across and not enough on establishing arelationship or demonstrating how human we might actually be.

Although everyone uses the word "authentic" today, I have to make a case for "likeability," to use Suzie Welch's word. For most companies and leaders, working on likeability would go a long way in making their companies great places to work. It's a good word for reputation-building.

Innovation in reputation







I was delighted to learn yesterday that The Holmes Report included me in its list of 25 Top PR Innovators. This new listing, the In2 Innovator 25, calls attention to the importance of innovation and ideas in the public relations field.   The 25 of us were honored for breaking boundaries, challenging the industry and pushing PR onto the wider stage that it so deserves.  Not bad.

One of the questions Holmes asked in a mini-survey of the Innovators was “Who most influences a brand's PR/marketing innovations?”  The top influences were CMO, receiving 10 votes, and CEO, which received 6 votes.  I answered CEO.  In my world, the CEO sets the guardrails for and shapes the corporate culture that allows ideas and experimentation to ferment and that also allows fear of failure to fade away.  Without such a culture, imagination and risk-taking would never have enough air to breath so as to grow and flourish.

During my career I have benefited from just such an expanse of breathing space.   My former agency CEO Chris Komisarjevsky encouraged me to ideate when I began one of my first research projects on CEO reputation.   Today at Weber Shandwick, I have had the full support and encouragement of our CEO, Andy Polansky.  Without Andy's support, without the amazingly collaborative culture that he has fostered, I would have found it nearly impossible to think divergently and follow my instincts.  I am fortunate and grateful that my boss and my colleagues have created an accepting, nurturing environment for ideas.  My thanks to you all.





Civility at work and at home








I was very pleased when I saw that the WSJ covered our thought leadership survey Civility in America yesterday (mid day it was the 4th most popular on the site!). In their article on incivility at work, they mentioned our stat that one in four Americans (26%) have quit their job due to the unpleasantry and rudeness they have encountered at work.The rate of Americans who have quit a job because it was an uncivil workplace decreases with age. Interesting, right? This could be that younger people are less tolerant to incivility at work or that it is more acceptable in today’s society to quit a job.

There is no doubt about the fact that incivility is seeping into all aspects of our lives. According to our research with Powell Tate and KRC Research, the rise in uncivil workplaces has risen over the past 12 months, from 34% to 37%. This might be part of the reason that 75% of Americans think we should have civility training in schools today. What could be a better place to start. You might say a good place to start would be at home. Maybe so but the survey found that 30% of Americans say they experience incivility at home and 55% see it in their neighbors' homes. Nothing like fingerpointing.

One of the questions we asked this year still intrigues me when it comes to this timely topic. We asked people in late Spring when we did the survey whether they would take a national civility pledge on July 4th.  Well, a whopping 87% said they would. There was no disagreement here -- men, women, all age and income groups and regions of the country were willing to spend an entire day being just plain civil. My sense is that the same high percentage would apply to this upcoming Labor Day. I am going to do my best as a party of one to be as civil as I can be, even if it surprises someone. All of our reputations in this country depend on it.

Reputation and private equity join up

riInteresting news came across my alerts yesterday. A private equity company, Catalyst Investors, made a minority equity investment in Reputation Institute.  This news caused a friend of mine, Bruce Rogers, who is the chief insights officer for Forbes and columnist on thought leadership to write, "Reputation management is the new black in corporate strategy." He sure is right. The topic of reputation is now radioactive. I think it has nearly passed the term "sustainability" in terms of sheer mentions (I did not think I was right but I was! a Google search I just did, reputation had nearly 406 million hits and sustainability had 82 million). I enjoyed reading Bruce's interview with partners at RI. Interesting fact -- according to the partners from RI, they have grown 43% on average per year over the past 8 years. This speaks to reputation's importance on CEO and board agendas today.

Bruce asked how companies were implementing reputation management programs and one of RI's partners, Nicolas Georges Trad, responded in the following way:

“Companies find themselves at different stages of the reputation journey. From Stage 1 where they are exploring what reputation is and how it is affecting their business. Over Stage 3 where they have company specific intelligence that they can use for business planning and integration. To Stage 5 where they are able to make reputation based decisions because they have the relevant intelligence on what matters to customers and other key stakeholders. But this is still a new business focus. 87% of companies are still in stage 1-3 but we see a wave of companies investing in reputation management to move up the chain and use reputation as a business driver." This is an accurate assessment from what I can tell too. The good news is that companies are starting the journey.

Upon hearing the news, I sent an email to the executive chairman and founder of RI, Charles Fombrun, congratulating him. I met Charles many years ago when he held his first reputation forum at New York University. It must have been the end of the 1990s and there were few reputation tracking programs available at all. There was Fortune's Most Admired which I was intimately familiar with and the seeds of Reputation Quotient that Charles had just started thinking about. That may have been also when I met my good friend and reputation expert Joy Sever who worked with Charles on that first RQ.  I recall the forum well because I was not happy hearing the criticism about the Most Admired study and how it needed changing (he was right) to reflect the many dimensions of reputation. I can't say for sure but Charles had at that time written the first book on reputation and my books soon followed on slightly different topics -- the role of the CEO in reputation building and reputation recovery and defense.

Ironically just this past week, I presented my thoughts on reputation trends to RI's other founder, Cees van Riel, and his communications executives working on their masters degrees at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. It felt like I had gone full circle from that day I attended the forum at NYU -- the news that reputation was a worthy investment, seeing Cees after many years, emailing with Charles and of course reading Bruce's column. Bruce and I were once dueling CMOs when he led Forbes' marketing and I ran Fortune's. Three degrees of separation.

Congratulations to RI, Charles and Cees and the others I know, for building interest in reputation, adding to the body of knowledge on reputation with solid global data and providing gravitas to the world of reputation

Thought Leadership hmmmm

thought-leadershipI am starting to wonder if thought leadership is morphing into an entirely new terminology in this digital age -- content provider. Lately it seems that people who consider themselves thought leaders, like myself perhaps, are now being confused with content providers. This latter term seems to carry even greater cache because it falls into the digital realm. I was recently mentioning this dichotomy to a friend at Forbes who writes a column on thought leadership and we came to the conclusion that anyone can be deemed a content provider but not everyone can be called a thought leader. Most people on Twitter or Facebook provide content of sorts but it is not always unique or new or truly awe-inspiring. Many times it is a rehash of what is in the news. Here is my definition of thought leadership from my first book. “Thought leadership encompasses the development of new ideas – ideas that keep a company at the forefront of change. It can transcend sectors and geographic borders. What is perhaps most significant about thought leadership is that it distinguishes and differentiates a company from its competitors. Thought leadership often breaks with business or industry convention, astonishes if not startles. Thought leadership reflects on the company and builds reputation.”

 There seems to be a continuum where simple chatter is at one pole of the continuum and true thought leadership at the other end. I would not pretend to know who would be those "genius" thought leaders but Malcolm Gladwell came to mind easily and he might be placed somewhere in the middle of original and genius. Those true thought leaders come up with thoughts that are so groundbreaking that everyone goes AHHHHHH.

chatter--->content provider--->thought leader--->original--->genius

It is hard to say what this all adds up to but the reputation of thought leadership as well as content provider needs better definition. Just providing content (even if it is more than what is contained in a press release) is different than providing new thinking that leads people to think twice or act differently or even possibly change lives. Something to ponder.

Thought Leadership Rises 5%

 Thought leadership, according to an alert I just received from LinkedIn, is up 5% in terms of people's skills.  Apparently 38, 710 people have attributed this skill to themselves. That seems like alot and a little. Hard to say. However, I've written here several times on the challenges and opportunities of being a thought leader. It comes in and out of fashion depending on the economy and the industry. Yet, who can argue with having new ideas and thoughts? In my line of work, thought leadership has definitely increased in importance. Communications and public relations agencies are now expected to have the pulse on new ideas and insights for our clients and the industry as it increasingly reaches the top echelons of companies. Communications is ubiquitious and can make the difference between success and failure. Bringing new ideas to the fore on how communications and reputation are transforming the world at large (including politics) is critical. What I find hard is coming up with new new ideas that break ground.  Here at Weber Shandwick, we probably outpace the industry in developing a wide range of new ideas and launching new research endeavors that back them up. Instead of relying on one or two big thought leadership efforts, we challenge ourselves to think differently every quarter. Hard stuff. But I am personally gratified to hear that 38,709 others are doing the same.

CK Prahalad

Some people have unequaled reputations. The late CK Prahalad had one. He was one of the most influential management thought leaders of this generation. One of his books, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, was groundbreaking and foresaw the rise of emerging markets.  He was definitely always a step ahead. Strategy + Business, the management journal of Booz Allen, has a wonderful interview with him from 2009 and one of his comments struck a chord. It reminded me of the courage I need whenever I embark on a new thought leadership initiative that raises eyebrows with some people.

Every one of my research projects started the same way: recognizing that the established theory did not explain a certain phenomenon. We had to stay constantly focused on weak signals. Each weak signal was a contradictory phenomenon that was not happening across the board. You could very easily say, “Dismiss it, this is an outlier, so we don’t have to worry about it.” But the outliers and weak signals were the places to find a different way to think about the problem.

To make a difference, you always have to start with the outlier or the unexpected. Recently I had an inkling to follow a particular trend and mentioned it to someone  in the field. They said that they had thought about it and decided it was not going to go anywhere.  It wouldn't happen. At first, I readily accepted his point of view. Then I thought about the weak signal this trend was giving out and that perhaps I was indeed right.  I could be wrong but it is probably worth following just in case. Anyhow, I am going to pursue this little idea and see where it takes me.  After I read Prahalad's statement, I made up my mind to mine my own ideas.