The best executives become synonymous with their brands, and earn the status of respected industry thought leaders. Think Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Branson, Reed Hastings, and Elon Musk. These thought leaders spread their—and their company’s—point of view in countless interviews and speaking engagements across the globe. It’s every PR pro’s dream to have a bona fide influencer in-house and spend their time deflecting press requests, instead of pitching endlessly for them.
How to Identify an Executive Thought Leadership Platform
While some executives may come into your organization with their own built-in following and a knack for courting the press, that’s more the exception than the rule. For most of us, we need to put together a PR strategy to build their thought leadership profile, and help them become an attractive source for the media. While we don’t have enough room here to do a deep dive into the topic, there are a few key activities you’ll want to focus on.
As the first step, you need to evaluate the topics your executive is most interested in and experienced with talking about, and how they fight in with your current PR strategy. While it can be tempting to take all the opportunities you can get, contributed content and media coverage doesn’t link back to your organization’s purpose and business goals is fluff.
Once you’ve identified the target topics, flesh out talking points with messaging that relates to your value proposition without being self-promotional. Go over the messaging points with the executive, then schedule a 1:1 media training session for them where they’ll get grilled on those talking points. With the feedback from that session in mind, work with them to refine their delivery of the messages until they become comfortable with the subject matter, and no longer feel scripted.
Tactics for Building Thought Leadership
After you’ve determined the right topical fit for them, you’re ready to dive into the following influence-building tactics:
- Build out their social presence. Coach them on being present on social as a way to build their profile. Don’t take on too many social media platforms though—identify the ones that are most important for your industry and your customers and focus there. Help them identify your industry’s top influencers and analysts and follow them and start engaging over time.
- Sign them up for (some) notifications. When they finally get a comment from a journalist they’ve been building a relationship, you don’t want them to miss it. Setup mention alerts to keep them in the loop without overwhelming them.
- Get them blogging. This can mean sharing their thoughts on your company blog, blogging on LinkedIn, or managing a Medium account. Consider a mix of content that’s exclusive to the channel and repurposing contributed content for a new audience.
- Apply for speaking engagements. Look at local industry conferences first, and customer events put on by your key partners. Start building out presentations on your key topics, and pitch to larger conferences as the executive gains experience and comfort with presenting them.
These small steps will help your executives start building their public profile as a subject matter expert.
Some Executives Aren’t Ready for Primetime
Despite the communications team’s best efforts, not all executives are cut out to be thought leaders. Despite the careful crafting of talking points and hands-on media training, things like this happen:
- One executive asked the marketing team to drive his thought leadership platform, but wouldn’t take meetings with them to work on content concepts. When he was given contributed articles for his byline, he refused to approve them, saying they lacked an “ah-ha!” moment. That’s right—he expected his team to manufacture ah-ha moments and substantial thought leadership pieces without his participation. Unfortunately for him, there need to be thoughts from the thought leader, otherwise it’s only marketing content.
- An executive loved wooing the foreign press, despite the company’s revenues coming primarily from the United States. He was surprised when a Silicon Valley-based reporter asked him about one of those interviews, where he’d continually referred to his team as “the beautiful people” and had remarked that everyone the company hired was young and attractive. Some executives struggle with the understanding there’s no “off the record” with journalists, and that sexist or discriminatory comments aren’t going to be able to be swept under the rug.
Luckily, these sorts of examples are outliers. Most of your executives aren’t going to have significant liabilities—like being a serial sexual harasser or an alcoholic—you have to work around. At most, you’ll just have to temper their enthusiasm and expectations. Building a profile as an industry thought leader takes time. But with the proper planning and support, you can get your executive team on the road to being your biggest PR assets.