When “Thought Leadership” Isn't

Issue Date: Daily 'Dog – October 2, 2008

When “Thought Leadership” Isn't: The Oxymoron of “Subject Matter Experts” and the Dark Secret about White Papers

By Edward Lundquist, ABC; Editor, Job of the Week

I am a big believer in the concept of “Thought Leadership.” People who speak out, and tell others about what they believe, taking positions regarding important issues can stake a claim to the intellectual high ground of “thought leadership.”

Take Robert Crandall, former CEO of American Airlines. He wrote numerous articles and guest editorials on topics from deregulation of the airline industry to dealing with unions. The outcome was a general consensus that Crandall had a point of view, and was forceful with his opinions. And that led to a consensus that his airline was led by a strong leader who had a firm grasp of the critical issues. In other words, “thought leadership.”

Positioning yourself in this way can enhance your personal stature and that of your organization, client or company.

I have ghost written some white papers for clients who desired to position their senior managers as thought leaders. This was a good idea, I thought. The leadership of the individual managers would reflect upon the entire organization. I contacted the principals—the so-called subject matter experts—and we began the process of creating “point-of-view” white papers for their bylines. A point of view presupposes an opinion.

What I found surprised me. Often, the principal I was writing for would send me to a website to get “smart” on the issue, or have me download a giant PDF file or read another white paper on the topic. In some cases, I was referred to a competitor's website. While these resources did help me, I felt less impressed with my subject matter experts who clearly were not experts on the subject.

I sought success stories, to show how this process or system had actually delivered positive results. It turns out there were none, at least not yet, or the client couldn't be mentioned, or there were so many caveats to the validity of the “success.” I could find some success stories if I dug around, but they were with competitors.

I asked one of the people I was writing for to state a position, or present a personally held point of view. “Surely you have some strongly held feelings about this subject? Thought leadership entails having a particular point of view. What's yours? Take a stand,” I said.

There was no reply.

I agree there are selfish motives to creating informative white papers. There is the object of making the client look good. But the iterative process of editing can infuse the content of the white paper with editorializing about their own products and services, particularly those that have those annoying registered trademarks attached to them. Instead of staking an intellectual claim that “we know a lot about this,” it becomes nothing more than a sales pitch.

To make matters worse, our subject matter experts feel the need to call upon their subject matter experts to help review and edit the article. Then begins a process of politics and editing by committee. The result is a paper that says nothing, but makes up for it by being unreadable.

As one colleague told me, “With too many cooks, nothing gets to the table.”

The concept of making a statement or staking out a position—even a controversial one—is still a good idea. It sets your managers above the crowd, and speaks volumes for your organization. But something that says nothing adds up to a negative. The upshot lesson for PR: Make it clear from the outset that it does no good to simply reorder the paragraphs in the sales brochure or put the PowerPoint slides into prose. Make sure your thought leader has something to say.

We all know that a communicator is only as good as his or her relationship is with the boss. Unfortunately, we are often writing these thought leadership pieces for some one who is not our boss. It is important to have a relationship with the subject where you can tell the emperor that he or she looks bad naked.

Edward Lundquist, ABC, is editor and publisher of the Job of the Week newsletter (www.nedsjotw.com).


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