Are thought leaders born or created?

Wikipedia definition of a thought leaderan individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. Thought leaders are commonly asked to speak at public events, conferences or webinars to share their insight with a relevant audience.

I can’t think of a single client or prospect that I’ve worked with over the last twenty years in cyber security PR that hasn’t listed “building a thought leadership position” as one of their goals. Yet, it’s true to say that there are only a relatively small number of individuals that can genuinely lay claim to the sort of cyber security super stardom reserved for the likes of Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure (in the interest of full disclosure F-Secure is our client), Bruce Schneier or Graham Cluley. So, what is the magic ingredient that transforms a good spokesperson into a genuine ‘thought leader’ that is sought out and even paid to appear at industry conferences and events?

Joining the Ranks of the Cyber Security Super Stars

There are a few prerequisites to success: some which relate to the individual themselves, and some to the companies they represent.  As a general rule there is something of a rite of passage for thought leaders, which starts with them building a reputation amongst the media and the wider cyber security industry as someone that has a depth of understanding and perspective that goes beyond regular commentary on breaking news stories. To make a good speaker and spokesperson they generally need: charisma, vision, deep industry experience that extends beyond the niche that their own company operates in and powerful communications and storytelling skills, including the ability to convey a complex message in a compelling, yet simple way. 

What is it that propels someone into the superstar category, because you could argue that there are a lot of good spokespeople that fit this profile? One key is in making ‘evangelism’ a central part of their role. Allowing them time to develop their ideas and publish genuine ‘thought leadership’ content; be in a book, on social media or in the traditional media.  They will need time to conduct original research or develop new ideas, so that they are not just commenting on other news but setting the news agenda themselves. Another important element is a regular cadence of original content, published on different media channels, which galvanises audiences and sparks wider industry debate, possibly released at one of the major industry events such as Black Hat, RSA or InfoSecurity. 

DNA of a thought leader

Genuine thought leadership doesn’t happen by chance, it requires a constant and concerted effort to develop new cutting-edge industry content. It’s also important to think about the individual or thought leader as the ‘product’ and work out what makes them stand out from the crowd. Do they have an interesting background as an ex-hacker, member of the police or intelligence services or have they served in the security trenches protecting corporate networks?

Who is their target audience? To a certain extent that will be influenced by their background and their specific interests and experience. It’s also vital to carve out a clear niche for what they want to be an expert on, as cyber security is now a very broad church. Examine the competition in terms of who else is already positioned as a thought leader in this segment and try and position your spokesperson on topics that aren’t already owned by another thought leader.    

Another area that is often discussed when embarking on the task of building an ‘expert commentator’ of industry evangelist profile is: “what’s in it for the company who pays their wages?”  Because sometimes, as was arguably the case with Graham Cluley when he was at Sophos, the individual may become a bigger ‘brand’ than the company they work for.  

The business justification

In my opinion this is looking for a problem that doesn’t really exist. If your spokesperson is securing headline news in national or business titles and being invited free of charge to deliver keynote speeches at world-renowned industry conferences, their profile will have a knock-on positive impact on your brand. Yes, I hear you say, but what about if they don’t even mention the company name in the coverage, just the spokesperson’s name?  This too is not an insurmountable problem in the age of social media, when you can promote their high profile media appearances extensively before, during and after the media event and – with the right copyright approvals – link to the online coverage and get all of your employees to push out the news to their social contacts, ensuring that there is no doubt about which company they work for. 

The 2019 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study strongly supports this argument.  It found that 55 percent of business decision-makers use thought leadership as an important way to vet business and 61 percent professed they are willing to pay more for a product or service based on thought leadership. 

This is particularly relevant in a saturated market like the cyber security industry, where many products and services offer only marginal competitive technological differentiation. In such a market the presence of a thought leader who genuinely resonates with the target audience can tip the balance in your direction, but achieving the heady height of notoriety like Mikko, Bruce and Graham won’t happen by chance. It demands a combination of natural talent and ability from the individual and the development of a PR strategy that will elevate them beyond their peers and earn accolades like entry into the prestigious InfoSecurity Hall of Fame.

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