Thought leadership can assume many forms during the course of a PR campaign. Native advertising is becoming more prominent and brands can pay for advertorials or contributed content to push an executive as an expert on a particular topic. These are loosely considered thought leadership components, but the most impactful and hard-fought pieces are earned. And when it comes to earned editorials, op-eds and bylines, the author is held to a higher standard of journalistic ethics and rules.
I’m focusing on what not to do because the mistakes below will immediately kill an editorial opportunity, even if the content is thought provoking and relevant. Best-case scenario is the editor for contributed content will suggest revisions. Worst-case scenario is the opportunity is completely wasted.
Never, EVER, EVER! include your company name or promote your company’s products
You are afforded two opportunities to include your company name: once in the author’s title and once in his or her biography, which is usually included below the body of copy.
If you mention your company or even indirectly attempt to promote or allude to a product offering, you will NEVER get the byline placed without paying for it.
Thought leadership isn’t about product promotion or touting your company’s success; that’s what paid advertising is for. Thought leadership is meant to demonstrate knowledge around a particular topic or industry to inform readers so they can make good business decisions. Ideally, they’ll remember the insight and advice you gave them and seek you out at a trade show or industry conference or, better yet, call you to discuss a business partnership. It also demonstrates to reporters that you’re familiar with relevant industry topics and can speak intelligently about the issues bothering people in your industry.
Never use clichés
This rule extends well beyond thought leadership pieces, but it’s even more critical when an editor is judging your writing for placement.
And it irks me as a writer and editor. A lot.
Clichés lack imagination. They don’t tell me anything. What do phrases like "take it to the next level" even mean? Take what to the next level? What does the next level even look like? Does the next level look different for each company? Are we moving up one floor in our building? Are we living in a video game?
Clichés in everyday meetings and conversations are less egregious; I understand that they offer a sort of universal meaning, even if that meaning is diluted, because everyone in the room has heard it before and can extrapolate from it.
But I still hate it.
I'm as guilty of this as the next person many times, but recognizing when you’re using clichés—especially in writing—can teach you to eliminate them, make you a better writer and increase your chances of getting a byline placed.
Obey word limits
Every publication that accepts thought leadership contributions will have a suggestion on word count. They have it for a reason. Follow it. If you go too far beyond the word limit, you risk the piece not being published at all or your audience losing interest before you’ve made your point. If you’re unsure, email or call the appropriate editor to discuss the direction the piece is taking and the suggested word count.
Avoid false ranges
As an editor, this is one of the most common mistakes I see people make. In all fairness I’m guilty of it occasionally as well, but hey, that doesn’t make it right.
Here’s an example of a false range: "Our new product suite includes everything from enterprise management software to CRM tools."
That’s a false continuum of items, meaning the range doesn’t begin and end with the same metric (high to low, past to present, etc.) and includes disparate items. The word "everything" could also mean that the product suite includes free pretzel bites and a discount flight to Bora Bora.
I’m a hardliner on this, as are many editors. Avoid false ranges altogether by being as specific as possible.
Avoid first-person subjects
Thought leadership is about you and yet isn’t about you at all. The subject matter of a thought leadership piece shouldn’t be you talking about yourself. You should be writing about relevant topics that apply to your entire industry, a piece of insight that needs to be shared or an opinion that might force someone to rethink his or her strategy. All of these examples draw from your personal experience and knowledge, but don’t require you to talk about yourself directly.
Sharing a poignant anecdote is fine; just don’t let it dominate the piece unless you’ve cleared it with the appropriate editor. It’s a subtle but important distinction and, if done correctly, can boost your reputation among your peers and the media.
For a more concrete demonstration, I refer you to Wedding Crashers Rule No. 6.
Thought leadership is a delicate and important PR component for startups looking to tell their stories, companies looking to grow their revenue and customer bases and those that are primed to ride off into the sunset (CLICHÉ!) go public or make an acquisition. If you’re looking to increase your or your brand’s visibility, we have a couple of former journalists here who would love to help.