Management / Denise Brosseau: How is thought leadership different from PR and marketing?

Denise Brosseau: How is thought leadership different from PR and marketing?

A few years ago, I sat down with a friend who had just left her role as CEO of a prominent PR firm in Silicon Valley.

I asked her which piece of her job she would miss the least. She smiled and said it was working with CEOs of technology companies who hired her team to remake them as thought leaders when they really didn’t have any original thoughts of their own or any vision of the future they’d like to see.

Sadly, thought leadership has recently been lumped in with PR and marketing activities as a critical component of driving traffic to a company website and driving more buyers to a company’s products or services. Vendors of all stripes are being hired to create content that purports to position a CEO or other member of their C-suite as the “go-to” in their field of expertise, and to brand the company as “visionary”.

While I have no problem with companies and C-suite executives looking for maximum exposure, building their brands or participating in content or influencer marketing, I would argue that none of those activities is synonymous with thought leadership. I’m not advocating for a purity test where only those that pass can be deemed thought leaders, but I would recommend companies and individuals ask themselves these questions to determine whether their activities really qualify as thought leadership.

  • Is their goal to sell more products/services or to build followership around a unique idea?
  • Are their activities designed to benefit just themselves or will they benefit a larger community, their entire industry or a broader cause?
  • Are they trying to become better known or become better known for making a difference?

In each case, the latter is closer to true thought leadership than the former. Thought leadership is not a direct to the bottom-line activity. But if you build more trust with potential customers and attract more loyal employees to your company, then you are probably on the right track.

Which are some companies that I think are on the right track?

HubSpot: Its blog is jam-packed with great resources, infographics, tips, ideas, how-tos and more that help their clients and potential clients be more effective and productive in marketing, sales and serving their own clients. They also use eBooks very effectively to showcase the expertise of members of the Hubspot team – not everything is written by one or two designated folks.

Salesforce: While Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s personal cause is children’s health, he has not hesitated to use his bully pulpit to advocate on key political issues of interest to his employees. Salesforce also features many guest bloggers (full disclosure: I am one of them) on its very active blog and shares the stage at Dreamforce, its massive annual conference, with thought leaders of all stripes. Benioff is also the author of Behind the Cloud, where he shares the story of Salesforce’s growth and how he became an early evangelist for SAAS and provides lessons for other innovators and entrepreneurs.

Vodafone UK: While some might point to its 179,000 followers on Twitter, I would argue a better determinant of Vodafone’s thought leadership is its collaboration with partners to create a series of Emerging Insight Reports, with useful data, tips, videos and prognostications on topics of interest to its customers.

Food for thought
How might you and your company share your expertise to become well-respected thought leaders in your industry, push forward important changes that matter far beyond your bottom line and/or use your clout to advocate around causes that affect your many stakeholders?

Looking for more ideas of effective influencer strategies? Visit my website at and download the Thought Leadership Manifesto.

brosseauDenise Brosseau is CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, the author of Ready to Be a Thought Leader? (Wiley/Jossey-Bass) and a lecturer at the Stanford Business School. After an early career in the technology industry, Denise co-founded Springboard Enterprises, an accelerator program for women entrepreneurs that has led to more than $7 billion (£5 billion) in capital for 627 companies. She has been recognised by the White House as a Champion of Change.