Don’t let fear and doubt ruin your thought leadership efforts

View behind a camera of an interview

Media relations can an extremely effective way to boost an organization or individual’s visibility among key stakeholders. This is particularly true in the area of thought leadership – when the goal is to be seen as the definitive expert on a topic or issue. Like any media relations assignment though, getting the attention of a reporter is not an easy task. The average journalist gets hundreds of pitches a day from PR pros. Yours could be one of dozens that day alone pitching an expert for a specific topic.

So, why should they care about what your individual or organization has to say? Frankly, if it isn’t a distinctive perspective, they probably won’t.

What journalists want to hear

There’s a big difference between having point of view and having a good point of view. If your expert is offering the same insight as everyone else – or voicing well-worn ideas – then reporters are going to hit delete and move on to the next email pitch.

Here are a few key things that reporters ask when evaluating a potential source for a story:

  • Is it unique? As noted above, having a distinctive point of view is critical. Journalists want a source who can enhance and evolve the discussion around an issue. Featuring a source who’s simply saying something that’s already been covered isn’t of interest to anyone. Nor is sharing something that’s so watered down, it’s just regurgitating established facts.
  • Does it apply beyond their own organization and/or self-interests? Journalists have an incredibly sensitive radar for self-serving pitches. If an expert can’t connect the dots from what their organization is doing to a larger issue, then don’t bother.
  • Is it timely? With how quickly the media landscape moves, it’s imperative your individual’s perspective be as topical and timely as possible. Taking too long to approve or perfect language only allows someone else to pique the reporter’s interest and the story to move on without you.

Admittedly, these tips are not some elusive PR secret. Any seasoned professionals should be nodding along with each of these points. Why then, can it be so difficult to break through as a thought leader with the media? In many cases, there are several concerns that delay and dilute opinions to the point they are null and void.

Fear of being wrong

Many individuals (me included) hate being wrong – let alone being wrong in print or on camera for the world to see. To avoid this, some will only okay a pitch if every potential interview question can be answered with irrefutable certainty. The challenge with this is that most issues that lend themselves to thought leadership are evolving with multiple sides to argue. Only a willingness to dive into the conversation until all the facts can be accounted for will have you on the sidelines until the opportunity passes.  

Fear of upsetting stakeholders

There’s a saying, “If you’re not upsetting someone, you aren’t doing anything important.” Part of having a compelling point of view is being both clear and bold in your stance on an issue. The rub here is that once you declare your position, you’re welcoming criticism from those who disagree. This is where many thought leadership aspirations break down. What may start out with a strong perspective gets watered down because of doubt rooted in, “Our board/our customers/our members (…you get the point…) will be upset if we say this.” This is not an invalid concern, by any means. It does beg the question though of what’s more important, keeping your stakeholders comfortable or advancing your thought leadership efforts?

Fear of disclosing certain information

Having access to data and insights that no one else does can be extremely intriguing to a reporter. Yet, many would-be thought leaders are fearful of sharing that information, concerned they’ll be giving up a competitive advantage in their marketplace. Again, this is a valid concern. But how critical is it that such information stays private? Often, being able to reference market research or revenue figures only bolsters your organization’s standing and isn’t something that can easily or quickly be replicated by the competition.

None of this should suggest it’s okay to rush a point of view in a way that foregoes basic fact checking, as well as asking, “Is it okay to say this?” For every thought leadership pitch that goes unanswered, there are countless PR pros who wish their individual hadn’t been quoted saying something that subsequently blew up in their face. But part of being a thought leader is knowing a space well enough to take a stand and answer any questions or criticism that might come their way.

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Greg Surber

Greg Surber, APR, is a public relations strategist through and through. He works on a variety of accounts, leading research projects and content strategies, but he also has extensive experience with more traditional PR efforts including national and trade media relations campaigns.

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