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The Side Dish

Thought Leadership in the Digital Age

Curtis Steinhoff / 1.11.2019

I watch a lot of late-night television. There. I’ve said it.

I tell myself that as a communications professional, I need to keep up on current topics and trends. You know – what’s hot and what’s not. But let’s be honest – I’m really watching to hear what famous people have to say.

One of the things I hear consistently from older stars is that they’re glad they didn’t grow up in the era of cell phone cameras and social media. They long for the good old days when they just had to dodge the paparazzi or carefully navigate prearranged interviews to manage their reputations.

By positioning clients as thought leaders, we can establish their authority and expertise in a specific field, making them a go-to expert in their industry.

Reputation Management in the Digital Era

Today’s wild stars – as well as political and business leaders – no longer have the anonymity to behave badly. At BIG YAM, we counsel several reputation management clients on what to do when they or their company have gotten into a mess. (Did I mention the YAM in our company name stands for “You’re A Mess?”) But more importantly, we advise them on how they can proactively enhance their image or mold their positive public persona. It may appear that politicians and business leaders can say almost anything in today’s environment, but I believe many of the comments being made or posted will come back to haunt them.

Famous business leaders, like our owner Bob Parsons, have both the advantage and disadvantage of heightened media interest. For example, when celebrity CEO Elon Musk talks about his vision for Tesla, it can enhance his company’s brand and share price. But when he goes rogue, it can lead to very bad results. Like that one time he called one of the Thai cave rescuers a “pedo” on Twitter. Or when he posted that he had the financing in place to take the company private. In Musk’s case, it cost him his chairmanship and $20 million in SEC fines. There’s a great article in the Harvard Business Review that highlights the tightwire that celebrity CEOs walk and gives us tips on how to manage the risk. Check it out!

Thought Leadership: A Modern Example

Thought leadership has been a large focus of my career. Before coming to BIG YAM, I was directing corporate communications for Nationwide’s pet health division. Yes, puppies and kittens. We were tasked by a new president to position both the company and our Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Carol McConnell, as thought leaders not just in pet insurance but in the broader pet health industry. We were fortunate that Dr. McConnell was not active on social media at the time, so we were able to create her online persona from the ground up.

I developed a multi-layered thought leadership campaign that included:

  • Online content (website and blog) for Dr. McConnell
  • Social and news media outreach
  • Event marketing activity and partnerships with Purdue and other respected institutions

These partnerships allowed us to transfer their positive reputation to research using Nationwide data. The campaign is still reaping rewards, such as a link this month to the most recent Nationwide | Purdue University Veterinary Price Index in a New York Times piece on rising pet health costs.

The woman I hired to help create Dr. McConnell’s online voice back in 2013 is Gina Spadafori, a former syndicated columnist and book author who made her name in the pet industry exposing the pet food recall crisis in 2007. According to Gina, “We’ve seen our collaborative work with the Purdue economists already establish the Veterinary Price Index as a benchmark in the pet-care industry. Now, we’re seeing a big jump in attention in the consumer-facing media, and this New York Times mention is part of that recognition.”

What this example illustrates is that thought leadership not only takes thought, but patience. A carefully crafted and executed campaign can reap years of results. It can also make deposits in a client’s public perception bank account. When it comes time to make a withdrawal, as most every person and company will face, it is wise to have been loading that account with positive deposits.

Positioning Marketing Clients as Thought Leaders

We are using some of those same strategies and tactics to position our clients and their companies as thought leaders in multiple industries. Some of these include professional services (Browne Law Group), real estate development (Estrella by Newland Communities, YAM Capital and YAM Properties), golf (PXG, Scottsdale National Golf Club), opportunity zone funds (Caliber – The Wealth Development Company) and others.

One of the most successful thought leadership campaigns BIG YAM has developed is for Byron Browne, the “Anti-lawyer Lawyer.” His ads have made him a recognizable and distinctive face in the crowded legal advertising market in Phoenix. 

So, the next time I’m watching Stephen, or James, or Seth, or Jimmy (Kimmel, not Fallon, but that’s another blog topic), I’ll be listening for pre-crafted messaging. You know, for research, of course.

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