Group Gordon’s Jon Bergman explores the delicate art of being a thought leader without courting unnecessary controversy.
Many PR clients strive to become thought leaders – people and organizations with relevant and respected opinions. One of the most effective ways our clients have achieved thought leadership is by translating their expertise into credible and unique opinions about newsworthy events. Luckily for our clients, as long as reporters need sources to quote, there will always be new opportunities for aspiring tastemakers to establish themselves as thought leaders.
Diving head-first into a controversial or high-saturation issue can be risky, but the potential for positive exposure could be a golden opportunity to establish a client as a thought leader.
There are many pools in which to jump, but why is this the right time and place to make a splash with a bold statement? And why are you the right spokesperson? It’s important to have a rationale before diving into any issue.
Let’s say your client is an expert on white-collar crime, but feels strongly about the latest Covid-19 vaccination data. Reporters who are looking for vaccination experts are likely not interested in comments from white-collar crime experts. This example might be self-evident, but it’s always important to remind clients that they will have very limited success when not commenting on issues on which they have relevant expertise.
It’s also critical to stay focused when commenting on deeply controversial stories. This time, let’s say your client is an expert on international supply chains and wants to speak to how an ongoing war could impact companies in the United States. It’s best to remind your client that he is a supply chain expert. While a word of condemnation for the aggressor military or sorrow for the human suffering may be reasonable, it’s critical to pivot to what he’s the expert on: the impact on supply chains. Publicly wishing for the total annihilation of the enemy is a great way to not be taken seriously.
Being quoted or interviewed by the media can help our clients become trusted leaders in their fields. Given the strategic value of every interview opportunity, it’s important to keep clients focused on communicating their expertise, not spreading controversy.
A unique, thoughtful, and well-timed take does more than just make a good impression on reporters. When pitching any client, it’s important to determine how their internal audiences may receive messaging surrounding controversial issues. For national interest groups representing diverse memberships, it’s difficult to balance when it is necessary to take a stance and when making a statement would cause unnecessary internal strife.
That doesn’t mean shying away from all controversial issues. For issues that are core to their values, organizations should double-down to explain to their members why the positions they take are important to their stated goals. You can’t make everyone happy, but you should always be able to point to why any statement or position is more than political posturing.
Even as public relations specialists, we can’t predict the future. But we do see how poorly conceived past statements can come back to stimy clients’ efforts to establish themselves as trusted thought leaders.
For example, commenting on breaking news can help your client reach a wide and focused audience. Unfortunately, commenting on a developing situation, without knowing all the facts, leaves a client open to looking foolish or insensitive. Clients should always question if they know enough information about a situation now that they could feel comfortable defending their take in a decade. To avoid embarrassment, stick to what you know, not what you think might be true.
There’s no way to always get it right, but with enough research into the issue, analysis of how a position would be received by relevant stakeholders, and alignment with their goals and values, organizations have a better shot at being on the right side of history.
At Group Gordon, part of helping our clients understand their communication goals involves discussing the delicate balance of when and how to engage with the media. Sometimes controversial issues are rewarding places for thought leadership. Other times, passionate engagement with the media is not strategic. To put this lesson simply, the act of thought leadership requires thoughtfulness.