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Stacey Ross Cohen: “Be a problem solver, not a problem spotter and continually challenge yourself”

Define Your Brand. Building a personal brand is the first step to develop thought leader status. Identify your purpose, strengths, values and passion. This is not about me, me, me — — it’s about your value to others. You need to understand your target audience as well as competition. What’s important to your audience? How can you […]

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Define Your Brand. Building a personal brand is the first step to develop thought leader status. Identify your purpose, strengths, values and passion. This is not about me, me, me — — it’s about your value to others. You need to understand your target audience as well as competition. What’s important to your audience? How can you solve their needs better than your competitors? Only then can you crystallize your expertise or niche and put your stake in the ground. My personal branding talks often begin with a question: “Who in the audience has a personal brand?” and am surprised at the small percentage who raise their hand. Everyone has a personal brand — positive, neutral, or negative — which defines them. Although it seems personal brands (and thought leadership) “just happen,” they don’t — the best ones take years and require an ongoing effort.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stacey Ross Cohen CEO and founder, Co-Communications, Inc.

Stacey is an award-winning brand professional who earned her marketing stripes on Madison Avenue and at major television networks before launching Co-Communications, a full-service PR/Marketing firm with offices in New York and Connecticut. Stacey is also co-founder of College Prime, a company that provides social media and personal branding training to high school students to succeed with college admissions, internships, and beyond. She is a Huffington Post and Thrive Global blogger, TEDx speaker, and has been featured in Entrepreneur, Forbes, Crain’s, Sales & Marketing and other leading national media. She holds a B.S. from Syracuse University, MBA from Fordham University and recently completed a certificate program in Media, Technology and Entertainment at NYU Leonard Stern School of Business.


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 was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up in a very entrepreneurial family. My parents had successful businesses of their own in the fashion industry and later years — real estate. I’ve always been a risk taker and love to take on new challenges. In fact, I started my first business at age 14 — — a home waitress service — — with my friend Jen. Driven to make more than the standard hourly babysitting rate, we placed an ad in the local newspaper with the headline: We Set, Serve & Clean up. Let us help you at your next party. The only expense was the purchase of a white uniform bought second-hand. We ended up increasing our earnings by 500%…plus we were booked for months out with repeat business.

After a short stint in corporate (CBS and a division of Young & Rubicam), I started Co-Communications in 1997 in a spare bedroom of my house with no lofty goals — just to “do it better.” Our team of 15 incredibly talented individuals create high-impact communications programs for diverse clients in real estate, education, healthcare, professional services, non-profit and hospitality. I’m particularly passionate about real estate since I grew up in it and am also married to a real estate attorney. One of the projects that I’m most proud of is the 18-month communication campaign “Build the Bridge Now” to raise awareness about replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge with a new Hudson River crossing, the largest public works project in state history.

I’m extremely passionate about helping people “be” and communicate their best selves online and off and am currently working on a book project on personal branding. I live in Westchester County, New York and have two amazing daughters, one dog and one grand pup. I love spending time with my family, travel, movies, and am a die-hard Orange Theory fitness fan.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership? I havehelped build brands and thought leadership for CEOs, executives, and entrepreneurs across a range of industries for 25 plus years. I’ve been fortunate to study and tap into the expertise and wisdom of prominent thought leaders to see “what makes them tick.” I frequently write and speak on the topic of personal branding and thought leadership at universities, corporations, and industry conferences (and also am proud to wear the badge of a TEDx speaker). Besides being skilled at positioning an individual’s narrative in highly competitive markets, I educate them on the online/offline tools and techniques that produce thought leadership success.

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

After college, I worked at an ad agency in HR which closely aligned with my “then” career objectives and education. I became mesmerized with the ads adorning the office walls and would constantly ask the creatives and account execs for the “why” behind the concept. I realized that this was my true calling — to bring words and images to life that tell a story. I moved on to take a position at CBS/FOX Video in the international marketing division and was lucky to have an amazing boss and mentor. Much of my day was spent gazing at spread sheets analyzing past performance and forecasting — — which I found interesting but lonely. I’d somehow always find my way to the PR department to find out what exciting campaign they were working on — — e.g., screening of a Mick Jagger video at a downtown hot spot. The PR department was eliminated and the woman who headed it up started her own agency, and upon chance meeting, she asked if I’d like to chat about a job opportunity. I was hired as a Senior Account Executive and CBS/FOX became my main client. PR was foreign to me and there were no You Tube videos or internet at the time. I just figured it out and quickly became the owner’s right-hand person. I saw the good, bad, and ugly of running an agency and this learning was priceless for starting my own agency.

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?

I was managing the press at a world premier video screening for the Boston Celtics at Boston Garden when I worked with CBS. When an attendee approached me, I assumed he was there to cover the event and directed him to the press “pit.” A sales rep from the company elbowed me and whispered Stacey, “That’s the Boston Celtics’ coach.” I turned 10 colors of red but the coach and I became quick friends. Lesson learned: Research the key players prior to covering events!

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?

A thought leader is considered an authority on a particular subject matter or industry. They share their deep knowledge, insights and ideas with audiences through speaking engagements, media interviews and content development — — and have a truly distinct (sometimes disruptive) perspective which inspires innovative thinking in others. A leader, on the other hand,holds a dominant position within his or her field and sets direction for their team. Their success is usually measured against specific organizational objectives. One of my favorite leadership quotes is by Ronald Reagan:“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” An influencer can be a thought leader and vice versa. Where they differ is their motivation. Influencers typically seek fame and financial benefit from advertisers/sponsors who want to reach the influencer’s audience whereas “knowledge is power” for thought leaders.

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?

Establishing yourself as an expert in your field gives you a competitive edge and builds both mind and market share. When done right, you can reap many benefits — career advancement, higher salary, rewarding partnerships, new clients/business opportunities, and revenue growth.

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?

Consumers make purchase decisions based on an emotional connection with a brand or individual. In order for someone to engage or buy something — they need to know, like and trust you.. Since thought leaders humanize a brand and are perceived as credible sources, they (positively) influence purchase decisions which drives sales.

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.

Define Your Brand. Building a personal brand is the first step to develop thought leader status. Identify your purpose, strengths, values and passion. This is not about me, me, me — — it’s about your value to others. You need to understand your target audience as well as competition. What’s important to your audience? How can you solve their needs better than your competitors? Only then can you crystallize your expertise or niche and put your stake in the ground. My personal branding talks often begin with a question: “Who in the audience has a personal brand?” and am surprised at the small percentage who raise their hand. Everyone has a personal brand — positive, neutral, or negative — which defines them. Although it seems personal brands (and thought leadership) “just happen,” they don’t — the best ones take years and require an ongoing effort.

Create a strategic roadmap. Throwing spaghetti at the wall simply does not work. It’s all too easy to jump into the tactics (e.g., creating a blog). You need to be both intentional and proactive and have a well-informed strategy. When we work with a new client to build thought leadership, we insist on starting with a plan which details objectives, target audiences, messaging, tactics and a 6–12 month timeline. It’s also a good idea to create a monthly content calendar to schedule what, when, where to publish. Align your content with trends and national holidays. For instance, if you’re a climate change expert, you may want to step up your content during Earth month (April).

Develop Content That’s Relevant (and Platform-Appropriate) Good is not enough — you need to create great content (curated and self-published) to capture your audience. Whether you develop articles, blog posts, ebooks, news releases, white papers or videos, make certain the content speaks to your audience. It is also important to be bold, share your point of view, and make industry predictions. Content is more than words; make use of striking visuals. Consider creating infographics to present data in a more digestible way. Also, showcase your value with a “wow” portfolio of client testimonials, achievements, success stories, and a professional bio/profile with headshot. Nothing matches the power of earned media to build thought leadership and brand recognition. I work closely with thought leaders to secure high-level media coverage — broadcast, print, online — — and then we cast a net far and wide.

Become your own news channel: Once you have great content, you need to deliver through a multi-channel approach (websites, speaking engagements, social media, blogs, e-newsletters, podcasts). Select channels that are in sync with who you are and reach your audience — — you can’t be on everything. Here’s the important thing to remember: Communications does not work if you turn up the volume and walk away — instead, you need a consistent drumbeat to achieve top of mind awareness. Speaking is a top tool to build thought leadership. Capture your speaking engagements and make sure to publish them on your website and social channels. Create a speaker’s bio and/or sizzle reel to further grow your opportunities within the speaking realm. I recently interviewed Ryan Serhant, a top-ranking real estate broker, author, and television personality (Million Dollar Listing New York) who recognizes the importance of educating and entertaining his audience. With 2 million plus social media followers, Ryan is an example of “broadcasting” at its best. He is a Forbes contributor, YouTube Vlogger, speaks at industry associations, and is frequently interviewed and quoted by national media. He is particularly proud of his new online course “Sell It Like Serhant” and media and entertainment company, Serhant Media Group, which allows him to have deeper content capabilities.

Grow Your Network. It’s been said that “Your network is your net worth” and there’s actually a great book written by Porter Gal with this title which shares best practices on how to establish and grow your online and offline connections. Networking is one of the most important investments you can make to grow your following. Engage and build relationships with mentors, influencers, and industry leaders. Consider joining a board or committee (both professional and community). Be social — — attend live networking events and be sure to connect with your new contact promptly via LinkedIn etc. I have organically grown my LinkedIn followers to 27,000 which has given me brand visibility, higher search ranking, and business/speaking opportunities.

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.

I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote the book Eat, Pray, Love, and gave an inspiring TED Talk (which I’ve watched half a dozen times) called Your Elusive Creative Genius. She talks about creativity in a disruptive way contradicting the predominant view that creativity is a rare gift and contends that ALL of us have a genius within us. She shares her own personal creative journey and challenges her audience to find their own creativity. Her thought leadership status is well-deserved — she is insightful, visionary and is a sought-out authority and speaker on creativity. She also regularly delivers thought-provoking content through social channels and has a podcast in which she interviews famous creatives.

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

I agree that it is overused. There are many individuals who call themselves thought leaders and they are not. You can’t just put the stake in the ground and say “I’m a thought leader in xyz” — — thought leadership is earned and requires time, effort and reinforcement plus a large and engaged following to help spread their insights and ideas. Ultimately, it is your audience who decides if you deserve thought leader status.

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

We need to “own” our days which are often ambushed by trivial “stuff” — — raising our stress levels and causing us to lose focus on our priorities. My simple advice is to avoid this by creating boundaries and saying “No” more….

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. 🙂

#cando — — be a problem solver, not a problem spotter and continually challenge yourself

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

Wayne Gretsky’s quote “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been” is my all-time favorite. The need to be one step ahead in business has never been more important. If you continually look in the rear view mirror, you’ll soon be obsolete. Marketing is an art and a science and requires us to anticipate trends and be nimble to change a campaign’s direction in real time. Our client’s appreciate and benefit from the constant flow of forward-thinking ideas and technology that we bring to the table.

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. 🙂

Richard Branson. I saw him headline a session a few years ago at Forbes 30 under 30 conference in Boston and I could have listened to him for hours….maybe days! He is incredibly insightful, funny, inspirational and authentic.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Stacey Ross Cohen Socials:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/staceycohen4
https://facebook.com/StaceyRossCohen

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/staceycohen2

Twitter: handle — @StaceyRossCohen
https://www.twitter.com/StaceyRossCohen

Instagram: handle — staceyrosscohen

https://www.instagram.com/staceyrosscohen/
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