An expert thought leader is a valuable asset for both content marketing and public relations teams, but activating them in support of your strategy can often be challenging if you’re new to managing a thought leadership program.
In this #ContentChat recap, Erika joins Kathy Casciani, principal at Azul PR + Communications, to explain how to best find and partner with a brand thought leader and surface valuable storylines that align with your company goals—spanning tips for media relations, contributed content, speaking opportunities, and more!
Watch the full conversation on YouTube or read through the highlights below.
Q1: What qualities make for an ideal thought leader to cultivate for content creation, speaking engagements, and media relations?
Your CEO is likely not your best brand thought leader given how much is already on their plate. Use them strategically.
“Frequently, everybody focuses on the CEO to the exclusion of everyone else. And let’s be clear: CEOs have a lot of things to do that don’t include [content creation, speaking engagements, and media relations].” – Erika Heald
“In the perfect world, your founder or CEO is willing to put themselves out there at least for some areas of expertise.” – Kathy Casciani
Kathy recommends reading Founder Brand, a book by David Gerhardt, to learn about how founders can turn their stories into a competitive advantage. Check it out on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
“It’s a really great book about how as a founder you can turn your story into a competitive advantage for your company and all the ways you can do that.” – Kathy Casciani
Find experts in your organization who are authentic and willing to share their expertise on topics that relate to your business.
“You want to look for that person who’s that authentic personality [and] has experience that is worth sharing that somehow ties clearly to your business. You need that person to be willing to put themselves out there. Someone who has that strong point of view about a topic or something about your industry.” – Kathy Casciani
“To give you an example, I work with a company called Freemodel, and it’s a home renovation company. They have a whole team of interior designers, and many of them are vocal about home decor subject matter. We frequently leverage them for media opportunities.” – Kathy Casciani
Develop a roster of thought leaders you can tap into for specific opportunities, and leverage each thought leader for their interests and strengths.
“It’s smart to really think about what that whole collective group of people looks like that you can tap into. That’s especially true when you want to have informed content curation, so that way you’re sharing on your company pages things that are really relevant and compelling and that you can take a stand on. I’ve used Flipboard quite a bit for doing that, because you can invite multiple people to participate. It becomes a more efficient way of keeping in one place all those links where someone says ‘we should share this, and here’s why.'” – Erika Heald
No matter what: You need a thought leader who has the time to share their ideas and opinions to inform content or pitches.
“You can’t have thought leadership without thoughts from the leader. You cannot just assign an intern at the PR agency or at the company to come up with content. It’s not going to be compelling, it’s not going to have the wisdom, it’s not going to have all that experience.” – Erika Heald
“You cannot outsource the thought leadership. Yes, you can have somebody help you articulate, but the thoughts have to be there.” – Kathy Casciani
Q2: What are some effective ways to uncover a thought leader’s stories and notable experiences that could make for effective media pitches?
Research your thought leader to see what you can find on them publicly. Then, host a planning discussion where you dive into what you’ve found and expand upon it. You want to walk away from that meeting with clear topics you will align your thought leader with.
“I call it a story-mining session. Really dig in and ask questions about their background, talk about what their expertise is and how that might relate to the business. I spend a couple of hours upfront on some of that initial discovery work. I usually come up with a questionnaire to get those things. And I have a whole list of things I ask for: past credentials, schooling, backgrounders, past media work that they may have done.” – Kathy Casciani
Hold ongoing discussions and plan three months at a time to keep your thought leadership topics timely and relevant.
“I tend to plan three months at a time. Don’t just do it once at the start [of working] with someone. Keep revisiting that. [Ask] what’s coming up in the world, are there holidays, are there occasions, are there things happening in your business, and how do you take your [thought leader’s] expertise and marry that. Create pitches and angles and ideas from there.” – Kathy Casciani
“As you get to know clients or people that you work with, things come out; they share information about themselves that maybe they didn’t share initially.” – Kathy Casciani
Create templates and checklists that guide you through conversations to ensure you cover all the important areas.
“I have a standard questionnaire that I use. I always amend it depending on the client. I have those basic questions upfront, a list of all the assets I ask for. Depending on the nature of the business, I try to customize it a little bit. Before you get too far down the path, you want to see what’s there.” – Kathy Casciani
Q3: How should content marketing teams balance their brand messaging and themes with a thought leader’s talking points?
While it is helpful to provide thought leaders with suggested messages, they need to feel comfortable to go off script and lend a natural voice to the conversation.
“One of the pet peeves I have is: when you have somebody who’s tapped to do media relations that doesn’t love doing that stuff, they feel really compelled to stick to the messaging points you’ve outlined. They can’t make eye contact on a video chat. They can’t off the top of their head speak to whatever it is. And it comes across as awkward.” – Erika Heald
Provide media training to thought leaders who are new to being interviewed or unfamiliar with interviewing best practices. Seek out written commentary opportunities as another way to get your subject matter expert comfortable engaging with the media.
“It comes down to practice. A good place to start: so many reporters these days want commentary; they won’t necessarily pick up the phone and do a phone interview, they’ll do it via writing. So we have a chance to work on things that way.” – Kathy Casciani
Focus on providing value to the intended audience, not plugging your product and brand messaging.
“Reinforce the idea that you want to start from a place of being helpful. You have to think: Who is the audience? And it’s not about your product. That should not be your first concern. You should be worried about answering questions in a way that will genuinely help your audience.” – Kathy Casciani
“Being of service to your audience is critical for content marketing, too. If you’re not doing that first and foremost, then it’s just content. It’s not content marketing. You’re not going to build a relationship when you’re talking about yourself and your product and your company when that’s not what somebody was asking you.” – Erika Heald
If your thought leader is not authentic or original, then journalists likely won’t use their quotes.
“It’s not a good way to build trust. People can smell that stuff from a mile away. The journalist will see it, and if the journalist doesn’t get the quality answers that they want—that are there to help their audience—then they might not even use your commentary. They may not even use your quote. It’s in your best interest to answer the question and not make it about you.” – Kathy Casciani
“If you just have something boring to say or something safe to say that everyone else is saying, too, then [the journalist] is going to pick the person with the fanciest title from the most well-known company to [quote]. If you want to be quoted, it has to be something they haven’t heard before. It has to be something that makes people stop. Don’t start with the first part of your answer, start with the second part of the answer, which is when they come back and ask ‘but why?'” – Erika Heald
Q4: How can marketing teams be more successful when pitching their thought leader to a media outlet or content partner?
Research journalists before pitching them to ensure they cover the topic you want to discuss.
“You don’t want to start with the pitch slap, right? Really do your research. Where people go wrong 90% of the time is actually pitching the wrong thing to the wrong person. Make sure what you’re pitching them actually relates to what they’re writing about.” – Kathy Casciani
Engage with journalists on social media and add meaningful comments or perspectives when sharing their articles or content.
“Before you even pitch, follow them on social media. Look at what they’re posting about. And think about sharing an article they’ve written. Ideally, that person, by the time you’ve pitched them, has already seen your name.” – Kathy Casciani
When reaching out, ensure your subject line clearly explains what you are offering.
“Be mindful of that subject line. Journalists are deluged with pitches. You want to make sure that subject line is short, sweet, and indicates what’s inside the email. Some people try to be clever or vague and they’re just hoping somebody will open their email.” – Kathy Casciani
Be short and direct in your pitch. When relevant, include additional links or background on your thought leader at the end of the email (below your signature is a great spot).
“In your pitch, make it short, make it sweet. Make sure you’re getting it through in a first short paragraph. If you have additional information you want to share—maybe links to other articles your subject matter expert has been featured in—put that at the end. You want to grab them with a quick, short pitch. Because journalists are just overwhelmed with their inboxes.” – Kathy Casciani
“At the bottom, including some relevant links, especially if you’ve been honing their thought leadership platform by having them post on your blog. That way you can say ‘here’s some things they’ve recently published on this topic.’ And the journalist can skim it and see if this person is offering a different point of view. If you’re doing your job right, then they will have been having a unique point of view that resonates with people.” – Erika Heald
If your thought leader lands a contributed article opportunity, they need to be ready to engage in the comments once the article is posted.
“You have to make sure that your thought leader is gonna be willing to engage in the comments. If it’s a publication that has comments turned on, they’re going to have the expectation that whoever authors something is in there responding to the readers. And the same way on social media. It has to be somebody who has that conviction and they’re willing to get in there and be a little scrappy. Because if they aren’t, then you’re going to get that one placement, but then you burn that bridge. They’re not going to engage with you again because you’re dropping that clickbait and then running.” – Erika Heald
Whenever your thought leader is included in an article or their contributed content is published, engage with the article and share it with your network. It shows the reporter or editor that you value their time and appreciate them engaging with you—which helps build relationships for ongoing opportunities. If your commentary wasn’t included, share the article with a comment of what you would have added (in a natural and non-judgmental way).
“You have to prepare clients and say ‘this may happen, you may submit commentary and it may not be used, but don’t ever think of it as a wasted opportunity, because we are gathering fodder for content that you can use elsewhere.'” – Kathy Casciani
Q5: What is the value of pursuing speaking engagements for thought leaders? Where does that fit into the brand’s content strategy?
Not all thought leaders are comfortable speaking on stage. Use other PR and content opportunities to hone their skills and find the topics they are most passionate about.
“Getting up on stage is a big deal for some people, so you want to start and hone your skills a little bit in other areas of public relations. That helps you figure out which topics are really shining and the things [your thought leader] gravitates toward.” – Kathy Casciani
Speaking engagements can be especially powerful for building connections and reinforcing expertise.
“If you get the right trade show or conference where your customers are, seeing someone live, there’s no substitute for that. You have that personal connection, that higher level of trust and connection. It’s always great to get there.” – Kathy Casciani
Many trade publications host events that could be relevant for your brand, so pitching those reporters regularly can keep you top-of-mind for when they are vetting speaker applications.
“A lot of the trade magazines that we might be pitching have events attached to them. So you’re pitching these editors who are also working these trade shows, and you may work your way in that way.” – Kathy Casciani
When you land a speaking engagement, take full advantage of the opportunity. Encourage your thought leader to stay for the full conference, engage with attendees, and attend networking events with other speakers.
Q6: How can thought leaders address breaking news or trending topics in an authentic way, and not come across as opportunistic news jackers?
Never capitalize on somebody’s tragedy to try to be relevant. If there are softer news trends that have a legitimate connection to your business or purpose, then you may be able to lend an authentic and valuable perspective.
“When you’re talking about softer news, that’s when you want to look for opportunities to be a part of a trend. And again, not to force fit it, but those are opportunities for you. The times where you really want to be careful, you don’t want to capitalize on somebody’s tragedy. And that’s where we see people go really wrong, and they upset reporters and the public by trying to insert themselves into a situation that is tragic for some people.” – Kathy Casciani
Ask how any topic is relevant to your business and what you provide. If the topic isn’t relevant, you shouldn’t comment on it or tie into it.
“It’s the same on social media, where you have some brands that every single observance or holiday, they want to post about it. You really have to just come back and ask people ‘How is this relevant to our business and what we provide?’ Because if it sounds inauthentic, it’s going to be a problem.” – Erika Heald