“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry”, with Vanessa Donohue

Becoming a thought leader has invaluable benefits. Beyond establishing credibility in your niche and becoming the go-to for industry commentary, it opens doors. If no one can hear you, they can’t get on board with your message. Once a strong thought leadership footprint is set, other leaders and mentors in your arena have a way […]

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Becoming a thought leader has invaluable benefits. Beyond establishing credibility in your niche and becoming the go-to for industry commentary, it opens doors. If no one can hear you, they can’t get on board with your message. Once a strong thought leadership footprint is set, other leaders and mentors in your arena have a way to find you. This can be in the form of potential project collaboration to internal promotions to external invitations to speak at conferences or join a board. Ultimately, investing in thought leadership helps demonstrate why someone should invest in you.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vanessa Donohue. Vanessa is a director in Antenna’s healthcare practice. With nearly a decade of experience in the public relations industry, her clients have ranged from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups. Media relations continues to be her bread and butter, allowing her to work with outlets of all shapes and sizes, from micro-influencers to national dayside producers. She has led strategic campaigns in a range of areas including oncology, mental health, neonatal care, regenerative medicine and others.

Thank you so much for doing this with us, Vanessa! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I’ve always loved a good story — stories that tell us that there’s room to hope, that inspire us and help us see the world from different perspectives. Equally important as telling a powerful story is considering the audience, because after all, if the right people don’t hear it, it’s almost like the story never happened. I realized that my passion for reaching people with these anecdotes stems from wanting to better our quality of life, and arguably, there is no industry that can do this better than healthcare.

The healthcare industry saves and changes lives. Because we are able to care for our bodies, we are able to enjoy the little things in life that are easy to overlook. We can laugh longer, dance like no one’s watching, take a moment to breathe — whatever we do, a healthier body allows us to enjoy it and to enjoy it longer. We all have our roles to move the world forward, and while I may never discover the next wave of treatment for cancer, I can use the gift I was given — storytelling — to encourage and educate the world around me that it’s coming, and what we can do to help it become a reality.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

One pillar of service our team provides is working with clients to showcase their expertise in their field through thought leadership. The healthcare world is full of incredibly innovative and compelling leaders and companies sharing new products and ideas virtually every day. It is no small feat to help our clients’ messages rise above this noise. Adding a second hurdle of complexity to these efforts is the red tape that comes with the territory of the healthcare arena. Because we are literally working with life-changing products and research, there’s a high level of responsibility and accuracy due when communicating to the masses. Each day, I have an opportunity to apply my creativity and tell the stories of pharmaceutical and medical device companies. These methods have resulted in placed stories, op-eds, bylines and native ads to strategically cut through the clutter.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

To someone working in the media world, having a story go viral is perhaps one of the most interesting things that can happen in your career. It’s surreal to see that after all of the hard work it took to place a major story — from developing the story angle to securing reporter interest to message preparation to spokesperson media training — the story begins to drive itself. I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in numerous viral stories to date that carried a message of hope for those suffering from an illness or misdiagnosis. The stories ran across some of my favorite outlets, including CBS This Morning, Today Show, People, BuzzFeed, Inside Edition, PopSugar and Good Housekeeping. Considering the critical missions my clients embark on, seeing them making headlines across the pages of a magazine or the screen is truly rewarding.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I can think of was actually during an interview when searching for my first full-time job out of college. Because the interview was for a marketing position at a broadcast station for a university, I was asked to give an example of how I would help raise awareness around a show like “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” While a unique question in itself, at the time, it wasn’t a show I watched. Instead of simply saying, “I’ve never seen it,” I assumed the show was about a “headhunter” — drastically different job descriptions — and then proceeded to talk about how I would use job fairs to educate students about the option to use bounty hunters as a means to find the next step in their career. Needless to say, I didn’t get a callback and then had to laugh after learning that the show is actually about hunting down individuals who break the terms of their bail.

The lesson I learned here was two-fold, 1) be transparent and genuine — even in situations where you really WANT to show you know the answer. The truth is always the right answer. 2) Try to better understand by asking a question or offer an alternative answer. Today, I would simply have said, “I don’t watch that show, what is it about?” or “I haven’t caught any episodes but one show I do watch is The Office and this is how I would promote it.” To this day I’ve still never seen one episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

In a nutshell, a thought leader does more than show the direction something is headed, but instead, completely rethinks how you get there altogether. They challenge the status quo to deliver a new way of thinking, which ultimately inspires and motivates change. A leader ensures everyone is fulfilling their roles and meeting results, keeping everyone marching in a steady direction. They shape and encourage momentum to ladder back to a predetermined goal. While thought leaders do just as their namesake suggests — lead thoughts — and leaders promote action, an influencer, especially in today’s terms, impacts a monetary decision. Instead of promoting thinking, influencers come to the conclusion for you and point to the product or experience you “need” in your life. All three of these roles carry their own value in the business world.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

Becoming a thought leader has invaluable benefits. Beyond establishing credibility in your niche and becoming the go-to for industry commentary, it opens doors. If no one can hear you, they can’t get on board with your message. Once a strong thought leadership footprint is set, other leaders and mentors in your arena have a way to find you. This can be in the form of potential project collaboration to internal promotions to external invitations to speak at conferences or join a board. Ultimately, investing in thought leadership helps demonstrate why someone should invest in you.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

In most cases, when meeting a potential client or investor for the first time you have just enough time for an elevator pitch. At best, this few-minute pitch lands you an hour presentation to consolidate who you are, how you work and how you think, all the while sandwiched between other experts competing to do the same.

Through thought leadership you are able to arm your potential partner with an in-depth look into what it would be like to work with you. The outcome is mutually beneficial. You are able to put forward examples or “receipts” that show your expertise, which helps stand apart from the crowd, and the potential partner can feel confident when making their decision because they fully know who they’re investing in.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry? Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. Carve out your niche. If everyone is saying or doing the same thing, eventually it all becomes just noise. After all, why should anyone listen if you’re not saying anything new? We work with our clients to determine what sets them apart, and furthermore, how this differentiator fills a “white space” or a much-needed solution. After boiling everything down, we define a niche that is worthy of attention.
  2. Be genuine. It is vital to speak to a topic or cause where you have deep domain expertise because it will likely be challenged. Showing your passion and firsthand experience in the matter is the best way to relate to your audience and gain trust.
  3. Keep your ear to the ground. After having the pleasure of working with CEOs of all walks of life, one thing they all tend to have in common is the advice to keep reading. Whether you consume your news from Facebook, industry newsletters, apps or your favorite morning show, keep your ear to the ground for topics that align with your mission. The news cycle is 24/7, so chances are, there will eventually be something you can comment on. This comment can range from an expert statement to a full-blown op-ed.
  4. Utilize more than one channel as a platform for your message. While the quickest and most credible way to share your message is through third-party validation, i.e. news outlets, it isn’t the only way to get your message out. Platforms such as LinkedIn and Medium offer the opportunity to pen long-form posts that can then be shared across other channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Submitting for speaker opportunities at events or on panels can also provide a means to bring your expertise to the world.
  5. Seek credible and capable counsel. If it isn’t obvious by now, there are multiple facets that go into proper thought leadership efforts. Partnering with the right team significantly reduces the heavy lift and time needed for a successful thought leadership initiative, as well as serves as a funnel for creative and strategic ideas. In addition to generating thought leadership pieces, your team should also know how to leverage that content once created, helping to shape your digital and social presence.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?

There are few people who don’t know the name, Dr. Sanjay Gupta — even outside of the healthcare field. Dr. Gupta is a voice of authority when it comes to all things healthcare for the general public, and I’m particularly impressed with how he’s taken his profession and passion, and successfully transitioned it across platforms and audiences. The lesson here is if you have an expertise, lean into it without boxing yourself in. Dr. Gupta is a neurosurgeon, but also the chief medical correspondent and host of a national morning show on CNN. He then continued his ripple effect in the thought leadership space by authoring several books. Being a neurosurgeon is impressive and impactful enough, but Dr. Gupta didn’t stop there and instead has transcended as a reporter and writer, leaning into his niche to create powerful thought leadership content. He has established himself as a true thought leader.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I disagree and believe people can be thought leaders in their own right. One of the advantages of being human is our ability to think differently. We should encourage more people to have a voice and share how their experiences help them view the world in a different way. In my opinion, we can’t have too many “thought leaders” because we need to challenge the current standard way of thinking in an infinite number of areas. There are so many cases in history — take medical history alone — where inviting new thought leaders into the space literally saved lives.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

My colleague, Sharon Golubchik, is full of advice, and this includes how to structure a team. She believes that the key is to surround yourself with individuals who are hardworking and humble, and the rest will fall into place. To avoid burnout, you need a competent team that you have confidence in and trust. I believe teams both fuel and feed off one another. With the right team in place, your job doesn’t feel like a job, and when that happens, it becomes a challenge you look forward to tackling each day.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

During a podcast I recently listened to, I heard the host say that despite how daunting her day becomes, she can pause and say, “I have clean drinking water” to bring everything into perspective. We often forget that the majority of our stressors, like getting to work on time or getting our homes cleaned for company, are blessings! It means that we have jobs and homes. But 790 million people can’t use this “grounding” statement and lack access to an improved water supply. 553,000 people are homeless in the United States alone. The reality is that many of the challenges we face on a given day stem from luxuries — we get annoyed when we get caught at every red light, but it means we have a personal vehicle! I’d like to inspire those around me to take a new perspective in hopes that it not only betters their day, but encourages us all to be more gracious with our time, money and words, to bless others because we are blessed.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was younger, I remember my dad once asked me, “How do you eat an elephant?” After expressing my clear concern that anyone would even consider eating an elephant, he explained “one bite at a time.” Both our personal and professional lives are going to be overwhelming at times. This quote reminds me that you don’t have to start with the end result, but instead, take the first step towards it — no matter how big the project or challenge that lies ahead.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to have lunch with Gayle King, co-host of CBS This Morning and editor at large for O, the Oprah Magazine. With her endeavors in the media space, I feel like we share a passion for storytelling and would love to talk shop, hear about her journey firsthand and learn from her. I’d also like to know what it’s like to be BFF with Oprah and how to get an invite to any upcoming parties!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can follow me on LinkedIn, here:

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.


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