CEOs are typically the public face of their company, and they need a market presence to match. Here are five tips for building your CEO into a thought leader.
1. Define His or Her Personal Brand
CEOs (and their personalities) come in all shapes and sizes. Before stepping into the spotlight with a thought-leadership platform, it’s essential that the CEO and the communications team understand and define the executive’s personal brand and tone of voice.
A personal brand should be rooted in the executive’s own personality, strengths and vision, as well as how he or she is positioning their role within the organization’s vision. At Merritt Group, we often use a persona exercise to help identify what this looks like externally. Is the CEO an academic? A technical innovator? A creative genius? What are they passionate about? What is their vision? How are they credentialed — through past experience, degrees, awards? Are they casual or formal? Bold or reserved? Pragmatic or idealistic?
Identifying key aspects of the CEO’s personal brand helps identify what topics, outlets and opportunities are appropriate for their thought-leadership platform and where their personal style and message delivery will be most effective. It’s also important for maintaining consistency in external messaging from the top executive.
2. Make Sure They Say Something New — and Nail Their Message
CEO thought leadership is much more effective when it’s consistent. Find the topics that are most important to your target audience. Then develop a solid message platform (with one to two core messages) to determine how those topics are discussed externally — from industry or customer challenges to competitive differentiators — and the unique perspective the CEO adds to the discussion. This also helps executives establish credibility (no flip-flopping!).
Update and refine the platform as needed, but the key messages should always be clear and consistent with supporting talking points or soundbites to match. Whether it’s a keynote address, an op-ed or a media interview, any public remarks from the CEO on the topic should reflect the central message of his or her platform, even as the delivery or examples may be tailored to the audience or venue.
3. Know How to Share It
With the CEO’s personal brand, tone of voice and unique perspective defined, it’s time to focus on delivery — because thought leadership isn’t just about what you say, it’s also about how you say it. Executives should go through media training with their communications teams to refine the delivery skills that let their thought leadership shine. In addition to getting comfortable with the central messages of the thought-leadership platform, media training also helps executives get comfortable sharing their perspective with a variety of audiences and answering questions about it, resulting in better and more natural conversations.
Have your CEO practice the key messages and sound bites that define their vision until talking about it is second nature.
4. Get Out There
Visibility is a huge part of thought leadership. After all, if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear, did it make a sound?
Take the CEO’s thought-leadership platform and develop a robust visibility campaign to get that perspective out in the market through proactive media pitches, bylines, rapid response, paid content, events and social media platforms. Leverage breaking news stories, data and other timely hooks to connect his or her insights to relevant trends and issues. Write op-eds and bylines that showcase new and divergent thinking. Pitch journalists with a fresh perspective. Use keynotes and panels to start conversations and engage audiences in discussion. Use the company’s owned channels to supplement media coverage with your own content, such as blog posts and videos that feature the CEO talking on the subject. Place sponsored content on target websites and blogs. And use paid promotion via social, SEM and programmatic media buying as a complementary tool to amplify the content you create.
5. Stay Engaged
Thought leadership is a marathon, not a sprint — and building credibility and visibility takes time and effort.
Ideally, if the campaign is successful, reporters will eventually come to your CEO on their own seeking comment and perspective on an issue. In the meantime, stay engaged in finding strategic opportunities to showcase the CEO’s perspective on important issues, whether that’s through writing an ongoing contributed column, weighing in on news stories or speaking at public events. Build a network of influencers that provide their own perspective and feedback on what’s happening in the industry that can help validate or challenge the CEO’s platform. As issues go through their own “hype cycle,” refine the CEO's messaging platform — or identify new relevant thought-leadership topics — to address the changing market and continue providing valuable insights.
Most of all, stay closely connected with the CEO to ensure that their thought-leadership platform reflects their current thinking and the issues that are most important to them and their business. If they are passionate about a topic, the rest comes much easier.
* This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for accuracy.