Credibility is delicate and complex. It’s delicate because even the most well-established, hard-fought authority can disappear in a heartbeat after any sort of miscalculation, service failure, bad press, or competitor’s claim—even if the claim isn’t true. It’s complex because there are just so many ways to either build it or foul it up, and it’s not always clear what action will yield which result. This is true both in times of crisis, when stakes are high, and as normal operating procedure, which is the ideal time to build credibility and bank trust.
Taking action to build credibility is crucial for any organization, particularly for those in professional services and academia who sell not merchandise but their expertise. Clients must believe that you know what you’re doing. Handshake meetings, great references, and solid work samples are time-tested ways to establish baseline credibility. But a more meaningful and lasting method is to publish your ideas in order to demonstrate your depth of knowledge, offer valuable and original thoughts, and provide insights or answers to questions with which others are struggling. In other words, demonstrate thought leadership.
Sadly, it seems the term “thought leader” has been contaminated by people who aspire to think big thoughts but don’t actually have original ideas. To me, being a thought leader—to borrow a well-turned phrase from Margaret Thatcher—is like being powerful: “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” True thought leaders are subject-matter experts with deep, relevant knowledge and insight who can cast light into the dark corners of a particular concept, industry, or business function.
For big ideas and cross-industry topics, many turn to major business news outlets for their thought leadership fix. But some experts are so specialized that they can illuminate the smallest niches within those corners, and as a result their ideas may not appeal to a broad audience. And that’s okay—in fact, it might even be the most valuable kind of thought leadership, since there aren’t as many leaders to be followed. Just because your ideas aren’t published in the Economist or the Wall Street Journal doesn’t mean that they can’t rise to that level of both construction and clarity of thought. Well-crafted content that addresses relevant, timely topics and offers distinctive insight can do much, much more for your business development than a flimsy 150-word post in the Financial Times blog.
In most cases, organizations get a higher ROI from resources devoted to promoting their professionals as experts—as thought leaders—within their marketplace and niche. This is particularly true for companies where referrals and relationships with existing clients are primary revenue drivers. For such companies, reaching thousands of readers with a media placement won’t pay off nearly as well as deepening interactions with a handful of current or prospective clients. Executives with thorny business problems want to know that you can think critically and come up with solutions that can set them apart from competitors. A modest archive of thought-leadership content, composed of position papers, Q&As, and other strategic pieces, can support a range of business development activities and help your company boost its reputation, build relationships, and drive growth.
Let’s be honest: whether your company is a $10 billion multinational consulting firm or a four-person shop serving a niche market, most of what you do is not newsworthy. So forget about trying to place an op-ed in a major news outlet. Instead, spend your valuable time and resources on developing deeper, more meaningful content to build credibility with the audience you care about most.