Thought Leadership in the Age of Fake News

thought leadership, fake news, Elon musk, Chris Brogan, Doris Kearns Goodwin,

One of the traditionally best routes to positive brand identity, media exposure, and best of all—public trust, is if the founder, CEO, or public face of an entity you represent is, or has the potential to be, what we call a “thought leader.”

“Thought leader” is a jargon-y term, somewhat overused, but succinctly descriptive. A thought leader is a trusted expert in his/her field, often called upon to discuss innovation, best practices, or even the future of said field.

For example, Elon Musk is a thought leader in electric vehicles and space travel; Chris Brogan is a thought leader in marketing and social media; Douglas Brinkley and Doris Kearns Goodwin are thought leaders on American presidents.

Which brings us to the topic of “fake news.” To be clear, fake news isn’t new. While it is exacerbated by the immediacy—and the anonymity—of the Internet, fake news is not a product of the Internet. From Anecdoa to pasquinades to canards, fake news has been with us pretty much since humans could whisper and wink.

In the past, however, we all recognized the difference between stories about Sasquatch reigning terror across the Yukon and the Taliban reigning terror across Afghanistan. Now, we have honest-to-God fabrications finding their way into the news cycle, as well as people with traditionally venerated bully pulpits claiming any news they don’t like is fake—regardless of who reported it or how un-fake it really is.

Setting aside that entire mess, let’s focus for a moment on what that means for PR professionals. We spend much of our time trying to maintain or promote clients as thought leaders in media outlets that once were trusted sources but now are barraged with charges that they are purveyors of fake news.

Entering into any public conversation these days is not for the faint of heart. The topic could be “The Beauty of Roses” and before you can say “stop and smell them,” someone has posted that “Roses are a faux romantic symbol of the Princess trope foisted on young girls as a means of oppression. Boycott Roses!” And so it goes.

In a recent industry survey, 91% of journalists believe the public trusts them less in 2017 than in years past. With the public so angry and media under relentless attack, will people see our clients as reputable thought leaders or as suspicious co-conspirators with alleged fake news outlets? Should we still try to have our clients featured as thought leaders in media outlets?


But let’s not stop there. It’s still a good thing for clients to be quoted in media coverage of a topic that’s germane to their expertise, thereby achieving third party validation of their role as thought leaders. The key is to be selective in where you place them.

  • Look for media outlets that retain the public trust, that maintain “standards and practices,” and that maintain clear lines between reportorial, editorial, and sales.
  • Look for bloggers who are themselves recognized leaders in their area of expertise.
  • Avoid outlets with a known political bent (unless that’s your audience).
  • Avoid outlets that are “pay to play.”

The other key is to be prolific.

  • Create think pieces (beyond blogs) for the company’s website and newsletters.
  • Write articles for the company’s LinkedIn page.
  • Create “white papers” on issues concerning your clients’ industries and professions.

As we’ve seen, anyone can dispute facts they don’t like. That doesn’t make those facts any less real. If your clients have something valuable to say, help them say it and help them find the right audience.

No Chelsea Mourning

Three years ago, when Chelsea Clinton was signed as a special correspondent for NBC News, I wrote in another blog:

“Chelsea Clinton, avoider-in-chief of all things media just made her debut as a ‘special correspondent’ for both NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and the prime time program, Rock Center.
“Chelsea, who when this appointment by NBC was announced, refused to comment to the media, is now on television and ‘delighted to be here.’
“Why does someone so smart not see the irony? How can she not see the difficulty of her audience trusting the message of one who so hates the medium?”

Ms. Clinton is now leaving NBC. Recently, she told People magazine, and later posted on her Facebook page, that she wants to focus on the Clinton Foundation and on her pregnancy. “While my role with NBC News may be coming to an end, I look forward to working with the NBC family well into the future,” she wrote.

Chelsea Clinton truly has many admirable qualities—understanding and the capacity for forgiveness most likely among them—and is, no doubt, adept and expert at many things. Broadcast journalism is not one of them.

Dylan Byers of Politico observed:

“Clinton’s departure brings an end to a lucrative three-year run during which she made a handful of feel-good packages for NBC’s ‘Making a Difference’ franchise. Clinton’s annual salary at the network was $600,000, translating to roughly $26,724 for each minute she appeared on air – a sore subject for the many hardworking journalists at NBC who made considerably less.”

As I also noted in 2011 about Chelsea Clinton who once considered a career in medicine:

“Television is not, as they say, brain surgery. But it is more difficult than it looks. Those who effortlessly communicate intelligently and effectively on television make it look easy and that makes just about anyone think, ‘I can do that.’ I hate to break it to about 85 percent of you, but you can’t.

“If you don’t know how to communicate with people, you cannot ‘do’ television. You can have the best writers, the coolest photographers, the craftiest editors, and the savviest producers, but if you don’t know how to follow your gut or get other people to spill theirs, or how to look into that camera and talk so people will listen, then you can’t ‘do’ television.”

Another First Daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, is also on the NBC News payroll, contributing stories to Today and NBC Nightly News. But Ms. Bush seems more engaged by the gig, garnering recent praise for her June interview with President Obama that, as the Washington Post proclaimed, “put her ahead of the political-kid TV class” that includes Abby Huntsman, Luke Russert, and Meghan McCain.

Dipping a toe into the waters of broadcast journalism is becoming more commonplace among children of boldfaced names, especially as entertainment encroaches more into how news is covered and presented.

ABC’s Good Morning America is practically an entertainment show now, and it learned its lessons from NBC’s Today which pioneered the celebrity interview/grieving parent/Al Roker’s latest diet/let’s dress up for Halloween amalgam that some networks think the (mostly) female viewers of morning television can’t live without.

David Muir succeeding Diane Sawyer as anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight could – as evidenced by what the New York Times calls Muir’s “anchor as buddy” style – herald a more breathless, less journalistically driven approach to the broadcast.

And Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN have trafficked for years in personality-driven formats that rely on the renowned host (Bill O’Reilly, for example) grilling the renowned guest (Chelsea Clinton’s mother, for example).

We like to think that change can be good. Chelsea Clinton leaving broadcast journalism – her nemesis since she was old enough to watch Saturday Night Live live – is one change that is.