Kristi Piehl of Media Minefield: “Lean on a Team”

Determine Your “Thought Leadership” Goals. When we talk to clients, many of them want to be thought leaders. But, when we ask, ‘What does that look like for you?’ we’re often given a blank stare. Before you set your mind on being a thought leader, I encourage you to determine your goals. What is your […]

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Determine Your “Thought Leadership” Goals. When we talk to clients, many of them want to be thought leaders. But, when we ask, ‘What does that look like for you?’ we’re often given a blank stare. Before you set your mind on being a thought leader, I encourage you to determine your goals. What is your best-case-scenario outcome? Then, you can start the hard process of creating a plan to make that a reality.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing CEO and Founder of Media Minefield, Kristi Piehl.

Kristi launched Media Minefield in 2010 following a 12-year career as an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter. With clients ranging from startups to billion-dollar brands, Media Minefield moves beyond traditional public relations with its innovative NewsabilityⓇ process. It is a one-of-a-kind full-service agency specializing in earned media, crisis communication and social media (Positive Online PresenceSM).

Kristi is passionate about supporting entrepreneurs of all genders and ethnicities. She is a founding board member of The Demon Angels, a diverse group of angel investors who support Chicago-based entrepreneurs. She is also a founding member of DePaul University’s Women in Entrepreneurship Institute. Media Minefield is a WBENC-certified Women’s Business Enterprise.

Kristi is dedicated to creating a unique workplace culture with policies that value families, flexibility and health. In 2020, Media Minefield took the #1 spot on the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s Best Places to Work list in its category. Kristi was named one of Minnesota’s 500 Most Powerful Business Leaders in 2020. In 2019, she was named a Women in Business honoree by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and a Women 2 Watch nominee by Women Presidents’ Organization. Kristi was Bethel University’s 2015 Alumna of the Year and is on the Board of Trustees at Bethel University. Kristi is also a founding member of The 25 at Bethel University, a four-year cohort program that aims to empower women to use their strengths, passion and skills to uncover their potential.

Kristi launched the Flip Your Script podcast in 2020. She is honored to host the show and interview people who faced a critical turning point in their life and explore how they found the inspiration to move forward and rewrite their own unique story.

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

I am a former investigative journalist and news anchor. I worked in television news for 12-years before unexpectedly being let go during the 2008 recession. After my career in news, I spent some time soul searching. I knew I wanted to help people utilize the power of news and storytelling, but I wasn’t ready to return to the newsroom. I took a class at my church, and that’s where the idea for Media Minefield was born. Media Minefield is a one-of-a-kind PR agency working to redefine the industry. I started this company 10 years ago and never dreamed it would become what it is today. From me working at my kitchen table to a team of more than 30 serving more than 125 clients, Media Minefield has evolved over the last decade to help clients in new and exciting ways. From earned, owned and paid media, we take a holistic approach to PR to help businesses, executives and nonprofits gain the notoriety they deserve. Our tagline is, ‘Be famous… in a good way.

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

As a PR agency, one of the top reasons clients hire Media Minefield is to help establish them as thought leaders in their industries. Over the years, we’ve helped countless organizations and executives become authorities in their respective fields. Clients want to be thought leaders, but they often don’t know what that means or how to achieve it.

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

In the early years of Media Minefield, I was approached by an executive at a large company who heard about the success we were having with our unique approach to securing news interviews. They had struggled to find a public relations agency that could deliver results. He invited me to their Iowa headquarters for a tour and a get-to-know-you meeting. I arrived for a dinner meeting and discovered at 10 p.m. that I’d be making a presentation to the President and Executive Committee the following day. I stayed up most of the night creating a PowerPoint presentation and never confessed that it was a last-minute production. The meeting went well, and we entered into a long-term contract that was significant in the expansion of my business. As the saying goes, ‘Never let them see you sweat’.

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?

We have a saying at Media Minefield: There is no such thing as a mistake if you learned something from it. Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot! The funniest mistake happened when I was invited to tour a client’s headquarters. I expected an office complex, but it turned out to be many small buildings spread across several blocks connected by gravel roads. I only packed a pair of high heels. It was a hot day, and we walked to visit every building. I learned the value of preparing for anything and packing accordingly!

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 from a typical leader? How is a thought leader different from an influencer?

A thought leader is someone who people go to for advice, insight, wisdom and expertise. They are credible and established sources of knowledge on a given topic or industry. Thought leaders have the power to influence decision making and they do so with experience, facts and scientific or independent research. They do not accept or seek out payment for their opinion, but instead share their thoughts freely to educate the public.

Anyone can be a thought leader. They may not be a leader in the traditional sense. If a person is trusted and a reliable source of information with expertise in a specific industry, field or community, they can be positioned as a thought leader.

An influencer is someone who has the attention of the masses. They often influence decision making by endorsing brands, products or ideas. A key difference between a thought leader and an influencer is influencers are often paid or compensated for their endorsements. Consumers look to influencers to find out what brands or products are popular or in high-demand or are on trend, not necessarily for their expertise on a given topic.

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?

Anyone can say they are an expert in a certain field or industry. When other people say you are an expert, there’s a significant amount of credibility that comes with that claim. As a thought leader, your personal and business connections grow. You become more sought after for groups, boards or speaking engagements. The more time, energy and resources you invest into it, the more rewards you reap.

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?

Thought leaders are highly-regarded individuals. They have gained the respect of their followers which creates many business benefits. If you’re a thought leader, your business may benefit by attracting new customers. People within your industry may seek you out for job opportunities or mentorship. News reporters who depend on reliable experts may ask for your comments on stories, giving your business publicity through earned media. Because of all of this, your brand’s social media presence will become more notable giving your business an opportunity to reach people all over the world. Your businesses’ visibility in the market will inevitably increase allowing you to spread your message and attract a more diverse audience and customer base.

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. Determine Your “Thought Leadership” Goals

When we talk to clients, many of them want to be thought leaders. But, when we ask, ‘What does that look like for you?’ we’re often given a blank stare. Before you set your mind on being a thought leader, I encourage you to determine your goals. What is your best-case-scenario outcome? Then, you can start the hard process of creating a plan to make that a reality.

2. Hone In On Your Message

Your message is the most important thing for your audience to understand. If you don’t know what you can be a thought leader about, you won’t be able to communicate it effectively online or in a news interview. Anyone considering making an effort to establish themself as a thought leader must be able to finish this sentence: I am a thought leader in xxxxx because of my experience as a xxxxx and I am uniquely qualified to educate others about xxxxx.

3. Utilize Earned, Owned & Paid Media

Thought leadership requires a strategic combination of earned, owned and paid media. Earned media includes media exposure you don’t pay for such as being featured in a news story or podcast. Owned media is content you produce such as a blog, vlog or contributor article for a local paper or online media outlet. Finally, paid media is exactly what it sounds like; it’s media exposure you’ve paid for. For thought leaders, there are well-known outlets that will allow contributors to pay a fee to publish an article. Utilizing these three forms of public relations to strategically build and play off each other will allow the public to see you as a thought leader or source of knowledge and expertise in your specific industry.

4. Change Your Mindset from “Sell” to “Educate”

Successful thought leaders understand the purpose isn’t self-promotion, it is educating the public. To gain notoriety and the trust of your audience, it’s important to share information and advice with the purpose of educating.

5. Lean on a Team

Thought leadership requires dedication. It’s something achieved over time and requires constant attention. I highly recommend anyone seeking to be a thought leader find a team to support them. At Media Minefield, we work with clients from startups to billion-dollar brands, helping them achieve their thought leadership goals. From blog creation, article writing, award submissions, social media posting — it’s a lot for one person to handle. A dedicated team who understands your message can be extremely valuable when seeking thought leadership status.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who 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?

Brené Brown is a thought leader in vulnerability, shame and courage. As an established research professor at the University of Houston and an author, she has the professional cache to be a thought leader. She knows her message and her audience and has leveraged media to tell her story and expand the reach of her message. Brené is holistic and relevant in how she communicates her expertise and hasn’t drifted away from her core message.”

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

“I think the term ‘thought leader’ is misunderstood which is why, to some, it may feel overused. Labeling someone as a thought leader should be reserved for individuals who have the unique experience to add value to a conversation about their area of expertise. As an example, there are millions of lawyers in the world, but those who want to be considered thought leaders have done the hard work of specializing in something, and they know their message.”

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

Don’t be afraid to disconnect from the office. Allowing yourself time to rest, relax and recharge is so important as a leader. It allows you to come back with fresh ideas and new perspectives on some of the challenges your teams or business are facing. In October of 2020, I took a month-long sabbatical. It was part of our company’s ‘Digging for a Decade’ program where on a team members’ tenth anniversary, they get a month off work. I completely disconnected, took my email and Slack off of my phone and allowed myself to do things I never would have had the chance to do because of work. When I came back to the office, I had so many ideas on how to make Media Minefield even better than it was before. As a leader, balancing all your responsibilities is complicated. You need to give your brain time to decompress and rest in order to keep it functioning at its highest level. This will not only benefit yourself, but your business and the people around you.

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. 🙂

Authentically share your story for the purpose of helping someone know they aren’t alone. Stories only hold power when they’re shared. In 2020, I launched the Flip Your Script podcast to give people who have faced a critical turning point in their life a platform to share their story to help others find motivation and inspiration to move forward. As we work from home and weather the pandemic, we need to know we aren’t alone and hear from people about how to fight through struggle.

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

Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is my favorite quote because it serves as a reminder to innovate and to remember to help others so their path is easier. I spend quite a bit of my time helping women who are launching businesses. My story happened to me, and it’s a joy to pass it on and help others. If my experience can make someone’s life easier, that is the true measure of success.

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 lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to sit down with Dolly Parton. As a little girl, her music was often playing in my house. As a business woman, I am amazed at the glass ceilings she shattered and the style with which she did it. She is a dream guest for me on my podcast. Someday…

How can our readers follow you online?

“You can follow Media Minefield or myself on our social media channels!”

Media Minefield website:

Media Minefield Facebook: @MediaMinefield

Media Minefield Twitter: @MediaMinefield

Media Minefield LinkedIn: Media Minefield

Media Minefield Instagram: @mediaminefield

Kristi Facebook: Kristi Piehl

Kristi Twitter @kristipiehl

Kristi LinkedIn: Kristi Piehl

Kristi Instagram: @kristipiehl

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

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