The easy part, relatively speaking, is persuading them that if they insist on promoting their product directly in a bylined article, it won’t be published. In case they have any doubts, you can just suggest that they take a look at the publication online and see if any of its articles are marketing-oriented.
On the other hand, by its nature a case study or a press release is strictly promotional. Readers expect that the story will focus on a product or a business deal and that it will be structured to make the company and the product look as good as possible.
But the boundaries are much more porous when it comes to white papers, sometimes known as position papers. Over the years, I’ve worked for clients who have had many different ideas about what such papers should be.
Ultimately, of course, they all wanted to sell their products. But only some executives grasp the concept of a truly effective white paper: It should draw in readers with a point of view about an industry trend and promote the company’s product indirectly by showing the need for it.
The rest want me to blatantly list the advantages of their product somewhere in the paper. To them, it’s just another form of advertising.
I don’t know whether a rigorous study has ever been done to measure the readership of these two kinds of papers, controlling for length and the demand for information on the topic. But I’d venture to guess that industry stakeholders would be more interested in a paper that gave them information they could use than in another piece of marketing collateral.
Interestingly, big companies are no more likely than small ones to embrace the concept of true thought leadership pieces. Because they’re big, they may commission longer papers that have space to discuss industry trends or government regulations at greater length. But in the end, they still usually want their product promoted, with hardly a fig leaf to cover it.
It was actually a small, rapidly growing firm that gave me the widest rein to show its thought leadership and vision. Over a period of several years, I wrote a dozen or more white papers that helped build the company’s reputation for expertise in population health management.
I always mentioned the need for health IT solutions that could help healthcare organizations manage population health. But for the most part, the papers focused on topics that people needed to know about, ranging from accountable care organizations (ACOs) and patient-centered medical homes to care coordination, patient engagement and post-discharge care. Eventually, the company pulled together my essays into a book that it used effectively as a sales tool.
White papers and byliners are not the only vehicles for thought leadership. Occasionally, if a company CEO is a recognized expert in a particular area, you might be able to get a major publication such as the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post to publish a thought leadership piece by that person.
The easiest way to do this, by the way, is to pitch a letter to the editor. But it has to be on a hot topic, and you have to get it in very quickly.
One way to show a company executive the difference between marketing and thought leadership is to ask him or her where they see a bylined article or position paper being published. If they say they’d like to reach a broad universe, you advise them to think about thought leadership. If they insist on a marketing message, you tell them that it’s probably only going to be posted on their website or printed up for use by their salespeople.
A sophisticated PR professional or marketer knows that organizations need the right mix of these two kinds of communications to be successful. But thought leadership should be part of the package so that companies can impress potential clients with their deep knowledge and brilliant insights.
After reading a white paper or a bylined piece of this type, the potential buyer will probably not go running to your client. But when the organization’s salesperson comes calling, they’re likely to remember something about the company that caught their attention.
Like medicine and angling, PR is as much an art as a science. What it takes to help organizations succeed depends on how many tools you have in your toolkit, and how many different approaches you try. Eventually, if your executives trust you, they will land a fish or two.