Today’s public relations campaign looks little like the campaigns of 20 years ago, when Monica Lewinsky became a household name, Myspace hit the internet, and The Blair Witch Project created a new film genre. Since then, print newspapers have given way to digital; what used to be announced by press conference is now announced on Twitter; and the evening news has become the 24-hour smart-phone news cycle.
What hasn’t changed, however, is people’s interest in what experts have to say. The public still places a premium on the opinions of informed leaders. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, not only has there been a massive rise in news engagement over the past year, but trust in businesses and NGOs has increased, especially among the “informed public”; 76% believe CEOs should take the lead on creative change. But while thought leaders of the past might have built their reputations on a few well-timed speaking engagements, op-eds in key publications and interviews, individuals who want to their voice heard today have to pursue a more strategic plan than ever before.
Earned media is just as valuable as ever, but building an audience is more difficult. People’s attention spans are shorter, and the ever-increasing number of information gathering options, from Facebook to Medium, means that readership is no longer highly concentrated among a few choice publications.
The traditional print op-ed still has valuable impact as a thought leadership tool – an op-ed in pages of The New York Times continues to be a coup for any public relations campaign. But as more publications are shutting down their opinion sections, competition for a Times placement is stiffer than ever. Pinkston research has found that, in today’s media landscape, thought leaders increasingly have to find new ways of getting their voices heard. In the past few years, for example, U.S. News & World Report, Roll Call and the Huffington Post have all stopped accepting op-eds; Forbes, Inc. and Fortune have shifted to a contributor-only model.
The good news is that as we’ve firmly entered the digital age, new opportunities for earned media have emerged – social media, podcasts, webinars, blogs, TED talks, and video op-eds have all expanded available outlets for commentary.
Thought leaders today should look to engage with a broader variety of earned media to build their names and brands. They should be willing to explore newer outlets (The Daily Beast, for example, grew to over a million readers a day in only ten years) or even foreign outlets (the BBC, for example, is now the fastest-growing online news service in the U.S.). Headlines have to be snappier than ever to grab a reader’s attention, which means leaders have to be more willing to be creative and perhaps speak on controversial topics. And the best campaigns are often the most creative – Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, for example, took the company from a soap brand to a thought leader in women’s empowerment, self-esteem and anti-bullying.
A strong “thought leadership portfolio” involves digital, social, visual and audio media engagement and can include: op-eds in both print and digital; a presence on a variety of social media platforms; newspaper and magazine quotes or interviews; television, radio and podcast interviews; strategic partnerships with other companies, organizations or think tanks; and commentary directed at targeted audiences, whether in regional or industry publications. This portfolio should include stable, staple platforms for regular communication but also be flexible enough to be able to adapt to news-of-the day, changing trends in technology and media, and other external forces.
Thought leaders should also understand that content for content’s sake is not a good strategy in today’s information-saturated world. The content you develop should, therefore, have a strategic purpose and follow a “content pillar” strategy, in which one piece, often a long-form device like an op-ed, blog post or podcast is tailored and repurposed into multiple pieces of micro-content that can be used to reach and cross-connect a variety of audience on varying platforms.
For example, an op-ed or interview published in a national publication can be distributed across relevant social media platforms and can be used to pitch new stories, interviews, or op-eds in other publications. Hubspot is an often-cited example of a company that is doing this well. The company offers a robust content platform that includes research, a blog, courses and certifications, customer stories and more. This information is then repurposed into infographics, social content, and videos to create a web of sticky content that engages audiences interested in growing sales, wherever they are.
Thought leadership today must be increasingly agile and adaptable. Modern media is not a fixed entity, but an ever-changing variety of platforms and outlets that offer exciting opportunities to engage with target audiences. Those willing to embrace new platforms and innovative ideas in their thought leadership portfolio mix will be well-positioned to be the leading voices of the digital generation.