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Can PR Support Thought Leadership? (Or Are They Mutually Exclusive?)

Note: This guest post is by Grant Crowell (see bio below), a freelance writer who I met through Twitter and recognize as a savvy contributor to ReelSEO which online video and its impact on search marketing – two areas of growing importance to PR pros.

>>> Recently I came across a rather intriguing debate on if public relations (PR) deserves to be associated as a means of providing thought leadership. My interest originally perked up when I came across a quote Forbes.com contributing writer and business analyst, Haydn Shaughnessy, who’s provided extensive coverage on thought leadership in the social enterprise:

[Thought leadership] is not PR… it has been confused with PR – but it is not relevant to what we understand by public relations. Thought Leadership is not about controlling perceptions – it is about leading them. But leading them in tangible ways. It is not content fodder to bolster the brand. It is all about planning and advocating a route to a new way of doing business, and in ways that reflect well on everybody involved.”

I found this statement to be thought provoking but also confusing, since I happened to personally know of several thought leaders in social business who have deep roots in the PR industry. One of those individuals is Craig Baidings, Director of Cannings Corporate Communication with 22 years in the PR consulting industry, including a PR consultant to large brands.

Craig is passionate about thought leadership, including helping companies arrive at a thought leadership position and then taking it to market.  Craig published a book on the topic: Brand Stand: Seven Steps to Thought Leadership, and has a blog on the topic at www.thoughtleadershipstrategy.net/

I asked Craig, what did he think of Haydn’s comment about thought leadership being separate from PR? Here was his response.

I love Haydn’s quote because it‘s provocative.  It’s the first time I’ve seen it and it certainly makes one think but I don’t agree with everything he says.

For example, thought leadership is absolutely about bolstering the brand.  It does this through providing insightful, new, ground-breaking content.  The entire premise of thought leadership is to position you or your brand as the pre-eminent expert in your field and it does this through the content you provide to the market.

PR has a critical if not a primary role to play in thought leadership. First and foremost, the premise of PR is to communicate with and educate a market – the self-same skills needed in thought leadership marketing.  Whoever said that PR’s role isn’t about leading perceptions?  Leading perceptions is every PR practitioners’ dream.

Speaking personally from my own experiences with PR – from my very first “real” job at the University of Hawaii College of Business to the multimedia press releases and social technologies we’re afforded today – I don’t believe that thought leadership and PR are in different circles. Good PR includes awareness and access to thought leadership and thought leaders that otherwise may not have ever made a broader audience aware off. What Haydn may be speaking of is the old business-as-usual mentality with PR that would only broadcast, instead of listening and engaging with audiences. That’s where thought leaders come in.

Haydn made another statement that actually lends itself to that point: thought leadership has to contain ideas that lead:

“Thought leadership has to have one essential component.  It is obvious but overlooked. Thought leadership has to contain ideas that can lead.… Thought leadership must contain ideas that are in some sense leading a conversation, a market segment, a professional group.”

That’s why I believe PR and thought leadership work best together when they put forth ideas that lend itself to a conversation, and include trusted people and trusted sources in the minds of their intended audiences. PR gets the reach and awareness that thought leaders themselves sometimes need to jump start a conversation. In return, thought leadership is becoming more necessary to include in PR to stand out from the noise and send a clear signal to intended audiences.

About the author
Grant Crowell is a self-described “videologist” covering the last and time tested practices with online video since 2005, and a freelance columnist in the online marketing space since 1996. His areas of expertise include video SEO, social media marketing, website and web video usability, and e-commerce.

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