How To Get Your Company Execs Quoted As Thought Leaders


Get Shift Done: Management

Reporters absolutely love real thought leaders: smart people who offer surprising and useful insights. But true leadership is quite hard to find. If you make it easy for the media to catch your execs being brilliant, your business may well benefit.

When company representatives give an interview to the press, it usually is in one of two modes: advocate or expert. Advocate, the traditional sales voice, is where the business executive argues all of the advantages of the product or service that the company sells. Expert is where the person is quoted as an expert, wherein the comments are ostensibly neutral.

When the two are compared with an eye to persuasiveness, there is no contest. An expert voice is far more compelling and is much more likely to change the audience’s mindset. A lot of senior execs resist the expert mode because they don’t see an immediate value. “How will this boost sales?” is a common question.

However, an expert voice is much more likely to benefit the company directly. If the audience is impressed with the experts’ insight and wisdom, the readers or listeners will think well of that person; much of that positive feeling rubs off on the company. Readers sometimes think, “That is a really clever insight. That’s the kind of people I want helping us figure out our supply chain problem. Who did she say she worked for again?” You want them thinking that.

Almost every business startup has executives who are experts in some topic areas and positively brilliant in others. These folks know a technology in great depth, understand how to connect the dots between two otherwise unrelated market opportunities, or can articulate the real reason behind why consumers are moving in a specific direction.

(Note: Before getting your execs quoted, you first want to make sure that journalists can find you.)

So why are startups’ efforts to get their top talent quoted as thought leaders so overwhelmingly ineffective? From my vantage point as a longtime technology journalist, the answer is twofold.

First, the people pitching company executives as thought leaders have no idea how media outlets use such people. That’s an easy one to fix: Communicate properly. Amazingly, few do.

The overwhelmingly majority of e-mails that I receive pitching execs as thought leaders follow the identical discomforting pattern. They all begin with three or four sentences stating something blindingly obvious, such as, “Security holes are everywhere and it’s only going to get worse” or “Mobile usage is soaring” or “Water is wet and if it gets cold enough, it turns into ice.” Those obvious utterances, on their own, kill many a pitch, because most journalists’ fingers are already hovering on the “Delete this email” button.

The PR person or other spokesperson then asks, “Would you like to talk with Jane Doe, our EVP of Obviousness, about this?” They then list bullets that summarize the initial obvious point.

Instead, consider what media people are looking for when they evaluate someone as a potential expert source (which is how we use thought leaders). Journalists need someone who offers observations, predictions, and insights that other sources are not offering, which allows our stories to offer something different, which is how we get people to want to read those stories.

I usually describe this as a surprise: something that flies in the face of our readers’ understandings, expectations, or beliefs. That’s what a thought-leader offers. Because otherwise you aren’t leading.

The next attribute we need is an amorphous quality known as quotability. That means that the individual phrases these insights in a way that is easy for our readers to understand. Ideally, it means phrasing that is pithy and maybe even — we can dream, no? — witty.

So what, therefore, constitutes an effective pitch for us to quote your company exec? Skip the obvious stuff and get right into your source’s most interesting — and surprising — thoughts, predictions, and insights. Quote this source a few times in your pitch, so that we can see how very quotable he or she is. Look at your e-mail from the perspective of my publication’s readers. Is this something they already know? If yes, try something else. Is it truly surprising to those readers?

The second reason for the ineffectiveness, though, is more problematic: These execs want to keep their truly insightful observations to themselves, to their employees, and to key clients. They — often correctly — see those insights as competitive differentiators.

That thinking means that the last people with whom the company execs want to share their insights are reporters. After all, journalists will share those thoughts with the world, which includes all of their competitors. Hence, the execs (or the PR people who aim to protect them) only choose to share banal and obvious observations, things that their rivals already know. The problem? Those are also things our readers already know, too.

Bottom line? Before your people can be quoted as thought leaders, they have to agree to do what it takes to be one. It’s not merely having insightful observations. It’s being willing to share them. Offering vague and well-known trends doesn’t position you as a thought leader. Indeed, it does the opposite.

Startups can absolutely leverage thought-leadership pitches if they have differentiated insights that they are willing to share. And if they do have such thoughts, that’s where your pitch needs to start.

Photo credit: Mark Hill Photography via Visual hunt / CC BY-ND

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