Thought leadership and the fourth estate: Finding common ground

A while back, I was attending a neighborhood dinner party when a woman—let’s call her Danielle—engaged me in conversation. Although we move in overlapping social circles, we had never gotten beyond exchanging the usual pleasantries. So I was surprised when, for the first time ever, Danielle began inquiring about my line of work. She asked me what kind of writing I do, which companies I write for, what sorts of topics I cover, and so on. I remember feeling genuinely grateful that she was taking an interest in what I do for a living. It isn’t often that people encourage me to chatter on, over cocktails and appetizers, about writing B2B content.

That’s why I was gobsmacked, and more than a little hurt, when she dismissed my earnest job description by blurting, “So you’re not a real journalist like Fred.” (Her husband—let’s call him Fred for the purposes of this post—is an accomplished broadcast news producer.) After staring for a moment in stunned silence, I turned and walked away.

The exchange rattled me for the rest of the evening, but it also got me thinking: underlying Danielle’s outburst was a commonly held belief that in the pecking order of content value and virtue, journalism, and even business journalism, sits near the top, and thought leadership, well, sits down near infomercials. Indeed, it’s a belief whose greatest proponents are often, and not surprisingly, journalists themselves. In a former role of mine, our media partner’s editorial team considered our sponsored content with palpable disdain.

Neither I nor any of my fellow B2B writers and editors claim to be working journalists who represent the public interest or are integral to a functioning democracy. Many of my peers had long careers as journalists before switching to writing for businesses, so they know the difference. They left journalism for all sorts of reasons, such as more stable employment, better pay, improved work–life balance, and, arguably, more respect (given society’s gloomy view of journalism these days). They feel fortunate to have found another profession that values their storytelling skills, including conducting research, interviewing, checking facts, constructing a narrative flow, and writing copy that sings.

My colleagues and I also have no illusions about the commercial interests we serve. Aside from our pro bono clients, organizations engage us to clearly and beautifully (shout out to the design team) express their ideas—in formats ranging from long reports, articles, and blog posts to podcasts, videos, and interactive infographics—to advance their reputational and business-building objectives.

The industry leaders, policy makers, and other audiences for whom our content is intended need relevant facts and insights to inform their decision making on exceedingly complex issues. Some of it comes from breaking news, features, and commentary. Much of it comes from thought leadership reports by subject-matter experts who have dedicated their careers—sometimes over decades—to mastering an industry, domain, or function. I’ve recently worked with author teams to describe strategies for increasing vaccination uptake in Africa, participating in the global offshore wind market, expanding the global public health workforce, and more effectively and securely sharing healthcare data, just to name a few.

While it’s true that my colleagues and I will never earn a place in the pantheon of American literature or win a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting, we like to think there is a respected and valued place for our work alongside that of other writers with whom we have so much in common. In fact, demand for our content-marketing services has never been greater. So if you’re a journalist considering a career switch, shoot me a message. We’re hiring!

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