Thought Leadership Strategy Public Relations

Selling the Value of Thought Leadership to SMEs

By Kersa Haughey

Your communications goals are set, and your team is busy securing media opportunities. But when you reach out to your internal thought leaders for input, you hear crickets in return. Why the disconnect?

The reality is that your key experts are juggling a bunch of other job responsibilities and people to report to, making it easy for your request to get pushed to the side. They may also be holding back due to concerns or negative past experiences. 

These aren’t always simple issues to solve, but not addressing them could compromise the success of your communications program. Your thought leaders play a critical role in building credibility, earning trust and differentiating your brand. You need them to build a successful communications platform and they need you to reach their business goals. Especially now, as we see the value of thought leadership steadily climb. Let’s dig into what’s fueling this growth and how to engage your thought leaders effectively.  

Why the Value of Thought Leadership is Skyrocketing

Several trends and shifts have been brewing in favor of thought leaders, and now we’re seeing them converge in a way that amplifies the demand for their unique perspectives. Here’s a look at the factors at play:  

Company and product news can’t stand alone — To secure valuable coverage these days, you need more than just the details of an announcement and a pre-written quote. Cision’s State of the Media Report found that 66% of journalists are most interested in receiving data and access to expert sources from communications professionals. Reporters want to understand how your news ties to larger issues and narratives, hear compelling voiceover from a spokesperson, and see supporting data points.   

Brands are expected to address social issues — A flurry of pivotal cultural moments — the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the imminent climate crisis (to name a few) – have snowballed into powerful consumer demand for socially responsible brands. But many social issues are delicate and need to be addressed thoughtfully and humanly. To earn audience trust and respect, companies should only focus on the issues that truly align with their mission and deliver their commentary through spokespeople instead of hiding behind their brand.  

CEOs are overstretched — CEOs have long served as the main spokespeople for companies, but their time has grown scarce and it’s no longer feasible to rely on their voice alone. Today’s CEOs are swamped with an ever-growing list of responsibilities — from navigating geopolitical uncertainties and disruptive technologies to managing stakeholder relationships and driving organizational transformation. For this reason, companies need to look beyond the corner office and leverage other senior executives and experts within the organization as additional thought leaders. 

Need for diverse spokespeople — The rising emphasis on ESG has driven businesses to take a critical eye to their operations and set clear goals for improvement, including a focus on building more inclusive workforces. As companies become more diverse, the voices representing them should too. Your bench is far more compelling when it’s made up of people with a range of unique backgrounds and areas of expertise.      

Resurgence of in-person events — After years of virtual gatherings and hybrid conferences with low physical attendance, in-person events seem to be returning to pre-pandemic levels. This means a big uptick in in opportunities for thought leaders to speak, network, and boost their visibility and reputation as an industry expert.   

Changing SEO algorithms — Generative AI is changing the way that people search for and access general information and challenging traditional SEO strategies. In addition to ChatGPT, this is shift is stemming from companies like Google as it rolls out AI-related search tools. One of these new features will provide users with AI-generated answers to their queries at the very top of their search results. And on the back end, Google is adjusting results and filtering options to favor the one kind of content generative AI cannot replicate – original thoughts and opinions. LinkedIn is following suit, changing its algorithm to prioritize knowledge and expertise-based posts. Generative AI isn’t going anywhere and soon much of the success of marketing communications programs will hinge on their thought leaders

Why You’re Getting SME Pushback

So, if thought leaders are so important and in such high demand, why aren’t they more eager to jump on the opportunities you bring them? In our experience, this kind of response can stem from a few things:

  • Burned by a previous experience — This could include having a bad media interview, being poorly prepped by a previous agency or not seeing a return on their time investment in the past.  
  • Lack of understanding — Don’t assume that your thought leaders are PR experts. If there’s been a lack of communication around the commitment needed for productive thought leadership and the value they can drive for the company, then they may simply be unaware of your expectations and goals.  
  • Don’t want to overstep — If only one or a few executives have been serving as a company’s main spokespeople, other potential thought leaders may have concerns about taking some of that spotlight. 
  • Fear or anxiety — Putting yourself out there can be intimidating, especially as the face of a company with business goals on the line. Nowadays, concerns around damaged reputations and “cancel culture” lurk alongside any external engagement, driving some thought leaders to decide that it’s safer to stay quiet.  

Engaging SMEs in Your Communications Program

There’s no formula to ensure all your thought leaders are responsive and engaged in your communications program. But there are ways to push back against these common hurdles to start building more enthusiasm and buy in around the value of thought leadership. Here’s a list of key steps you can take:

  • Identify the right SMEs: Look within the organization for individuals with deep expertise, passion for specific topics, and the ability to communicate effectively.  
  • Communicate their importance: Help them understand their value in driving the brand’s credibility, trust, and market leadership. Share examples of how other thought leaders have made an impact for both their brand and themselves. 
  • Align with their goals: Understand their professional goals and convey how participating in the communications opportunities can accelerate progress toward those objectives. 
  • Provide training and support: Offer training in public speaking, writing, and media interactions. Provide continuous support and feedback to help them excel. 
  • Create a collaborative environment: Foster an environment where they can play a role in guiding the strategy. Encourage them to regularly share ideas and insights. 
  • Showcase their success: Celebrate their contributions and traction both internally and externally. Recognition can be a powerful motivator.  
  • Measure results and provide a path forward: Regularly measure and share the impact of their activity with them. Show them how their efforts are translating into tangible business outcomes and provide data-backed recommendations for what to do next. 

Thought Leaders Are Your True Differentiators

Now, more than ever, thought leadership has the power to transform a company’s credibility and differentiation. Every company has thought leaders, realized or not. The question is, are you engaging them in a way that empowers them to be spokespeople who challenge convention, speak up in times of crisis, and authoritatively represent your brand?  

By providing helpful training and guidance, supporting their passions, serving up channels to amplify their voice, and celebrating their contributions, you’re not just boosting their status as an industry leader; you’re building genuine connections with your audience. In a world saturated by brand messages and AI-generated content, your thought leaders are your ticket to standing out.