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Mr. Fouse is a Partner and Lead Strategist with Pinkston, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic communications firm.
Leaders need gatekeepers.
Gatekeepers are essential to getting important work done and managing the in-flow of people, work and information. But after nearly two decades in communications, I have seen that even well-meaning gatekeepers can be one of the key reasons that executive thought leadership programs fail.
Rarely do gatekeepers do this intentionally. Most believe they act in the leader’s best interest. But without a clear understanding of vision, goal and purpose, they lack the clarity that allows them to carry out their jobs in sync with a thought leadership initiative.
For example, in a recent study our firm conducted on op-eds that ran in six of the top national publications, our researchers found that not one of the published op-eds mentioned the author’s company, brand or product. Of course, “advertising” in op-eds is something we advise executives to avoid; op-eds are for thought leadership, not product promotion. Yet executive gatekeepers often push for company or product mentions in earned media content, thinking that they’re looking out for the company’s best interest. As a result, many op-eds never make it past an editor’s inbox, and an important tool for positioning thought leaders is weakened or eliminated altogether.
In addition, our research team also found that most op-eds in top-tier publications use the first-person voice; 22% of articles in our review even included a first-person statement in the title itself. The upshot is that a CEO’s best chance for being published is when he or she provides some insight into their own personal experience. But we’ve seen that gatekeepers often try to protect a CEO’s time by blocking the meetings or conversations where a skilled messaging team can discover what makes the executive’s perspective unique and personal. What results is a message that sounds clinical and detached.
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Op-ed content is just one way that gatekeepers can hurt thought leadership programs from being effective. There are more. Here are three essential steps executives must take to ensure their thought leadership program doesn’t get stopped at the gate.
Any executive assistant, manager or vice president with influence over a leader’s availability, written content, interviews, social media, or other communications platforms must be informed of the intent to execute a thought leadership program.
This starts at the top. Executives must ensure that the gatekeeper(s) know what’s happening, why it matters, who’s involved and the level of access they should have. Executives must clearly communicate that the gatekeeper’s job is to facilitate, not block, and that they are empowered and accountable to do so.
One of the most effective thought leadership programs I’ve had the privilege of being part of was with Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Technology Association. Early in the program, Gary made clear that he would be personally involved in all aspects of the thought leadership initiative, and he cleared obstacles that might prevent success. Gary went on to write three books, publish hundreds of op-eds in publications around the world, participate in interviews and events worldwide and more. It’s no coincidence that his organization hosts the largest consumer technology show in the world and is one of the leading collaborators in the industry.
2. Stop guessing.
When it comes to thought leadership, especially in the early phases of launching a platform, it’s better for executives to be over-involved and informed. Thought leadership is not something that can be delegated to a team: “Make me a thought leader.” It requires time and personal investment.
So, take the guesswork out and let your gatekeeper know that anything related to the thought leadership initiative should be given access. In my experience, when the thought leadership team lacks executive access, the thought leadership program fails 100% of the time.
Several years ago, a global financial services company hired us to help build their thought leadership program. Executive-level leadership was peripherally involved in the program, but it was ultimately managed by mid-level executives that operated in a culture of fear and lacked the authority to make decisions. This resulted in a lack of decision-making and chronic second-guessing. Meetings lasted hours, and approvals for everything from written content to earned media engagement took weeks. In a 24/7 news cycle, this meant lost opportunities. In environments like this, process rules because it’s safe — but this is where thought leadership dies.
3. Cast a vision.
Effective thought leadership programs require personal investment not just by the executive but by those closest to them. Gatekeepers can’t be passive. They need to be super advocates for the thought leader.
Taking a page out of the political playbook, super advocates are inspired; they knock on doors, they make phone calls, they send emails and they don’t stop — because they believe there’s more to be done. They believe that what they’re doing matters and is making a difference. This sort of engagement must be inspired by leaders who first have a vision themselves, and then are able to convey it to those around them so that they too believe and make it their own.
The executive plays an important role in a gatekeeper’s success, and a gatekeeper plays an important role in an executive’s thought leadership success — the two go hand-in-hand. If an executive reprimands a gatekeeper for including them in a meeting they thought was important to the thought leader’s agenda, then they incentivize a less proactive approach by the gatekeeper in the future. On the other hand, if an executive makes it clear that thought leadership — and open communication between leader and gatekeeper — is a priority, then the thought leadership strategy has a better chance of success.
In the thousands of thought leadership campaigns we’ve led, those with the best outcomes are always those in which the executive and the gatekeeper work harmoniously with each other. There is a relationship of trust, not fear, and a shared mentality of welcoming opportunities, not limiting them. This opens the door to bigger and more influential opportunities over time.
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