Having worked in PR for more than a dozen years, one of the unkillable buzz-phrases has been “thought leader.” For PR clients, it’s a simplified expression for being known for more than self-promotional reasons. rather than shilling your product or company (there is always a place for that), show expertise in a topic, and get media coverage, and industry recognition, and the resulting boost in credibility helps bring credibility to- well, your shilling of your company and product.
Fast forward to social media days, where the push and pull between communications consulting (PR, marketing, and even advertising are being bundled up in social media, confusing matters more) and brazen self-promotion has become more fierce.
See, as a PR flak I took a lot of pride in being behind the scenes, making clients famous. I guess I was the same way in my media days as well, preferring the role of editor and producer to that of on-air personality or bylined reporter. As my work moved more towards, social media, many of us made the unaccustomed move to be out front, blogging and Tweeting and making all sorts of media that other people can see. This process has created a lot more visibility for many of us, and that’s great as far as it instructs in how to make the people who pay us famous.
Again, we come to the push/pull between consulting and self-promotion. I tend to tread lightly, because many people I consider friends have gotten”social media famous” or whatever you like to call it. However, determining the difference between people enjoying the sound of their own voices and those who are genuinely making contributions has become harder to discern in the flood of social media publishing (and I use that term in its broadest meaning, not just books).
This difficulty makes articles like this one in the Harvard Business Review (“How to Become a Thought Leader in six Steps”) dangerous, to be frank. Here are the six steps from Dorie Clark’s post:
- Create a Robust Online Presence
- Flaunt High-Quality Affiliations
- Give Public Speeches
- Appear on TV
- Win Some Awards
- Publish a Book
First, what is great about them is that they are common-sense steps to get attention- nothing new to PR folks, but always bearing repetition.
What worries me about this list, is it is all about gaining attention, and those prone to self-absorption will follow these rules to the hilt without necessarily fueling it with what is most necessary: thought. Just as good PR cannot overcome a bad product, effective thought leadership cannot truly survive if narcissism takes hold.
So, follow these rules (and use the word “robust” – sorry, couldn’t resist) at your peril. Is publishing a book necessary? Awards? Speaking? How about a barrel of case studies of your actual work (which might win you those awards or be publishable in a book. And high-quality affiliations are great, but flaunting them is not something I would find attractive in a potential consultant- in fact, if that’s what I look for in a hire I have already lost.
To be fair, this list will probably serve several people well, particularly Ms Clark’s audience. To me, however, it comes up empty. Substance will always rule; theses rules are polish.
Perhaps it takes Six Steps to be a “Thought Leader,” but I’m guessing twice as many to pull back if you go too far.