What is thought leadership? Over the past few years, the phrase has become a bit of a buzzword, used to describe everything from publishing op-ed articles to contributing expert commentary to doing a TED Talk. That ubiquity also makes it more difficult for audiences to identify true thought leaders at a time when nearly anyone with access to blog software and a podcast mic can claim that title.

True thought leaders are experts in their chosen field, able to talk knowledgeably about their industry from the broadest concept to the smallest detail. Even more importantly, they’re interested in informing, educating and helping others, making them an essential part of any public relations strategy.

Thought leadership aims to build trust and authority with key audiences like customers, journalists, investors and current and potential employees. There’s a bit of salesmanship to it but in the most subtle way. A successful thought leadership program plants the idea in the audience’s mind that this person and their company are worth paying attention to. Capturing that attention, however, involves selecting the right people to deliver the message and the right outlets where that message will be welcomed.

Identifying Your Company’s Thought Leaders

Most enterprises will look to the CEO as their default thought leader. It’s a safe and logical choice. They’re often the face of the company and are typically quoted in most media coverage. But the CEO must have the qualities of empathy and authenticity to tell great stories and be an effective thought leader.

As a company grows, it may be worthwhile to develop other executive team members as thought leaders. A deep bench comes in handy when the CEO isn’t available. Also, the CEO could choose to yield the floor to the CTO to write about deeply technical topics.

Even beyond the executive team, other subject matter experts — especially developer relations managers, security professionals or product managers — can step into a thought leader role given the right opportunity.

Finding Your Right Audience

With the right communicators in place, the next step is identifying the best groups to receive their message. That could be the readers of general business or technical publications (like Forbes or Wired) or industry-specific publications like Supply & Demand Chain Executive. Even social media sites like LinkedIn can make a good home for thought leadership content.

Newspaper op-ed sections and daily news sites look for commentary on stories that are currently in the news, while outlets that focus on entire industries are more likely to accept articles that identify big-picture trends. TechCrunch, one of the most coveted spots for emerging tech companies, is specific about what they’re looking for in thought leadership guest posts.

Experience is the best teacher, which is why we’re looking for guest articles that can help others navigate this downturn. Since the stakes are so high, we are not looking for articles that share “thought leadership” about general challenges people in the tech industry are facing right now.

We’re only interested in posts offering actionable advice that are written by authors who have experience working under adverse economic circumstances.

The key is matching the publication’s audience with the message being delivered. Investors are likely reading Crunchbase News, while potential customers may look toward more targeted vertical publications.

Making It Work

With the right people in place and a targeted strategy that maps key messages to target groups, a thought leadership program is built to succeed. Journalists will think of thought leaders when they need a quote for their story, customers will think of them when considering a purchase, and potential employees will think of them when looking for an amazing place to work.

By starting with a broad foundation of industry expertise, then delivering that message with authenticity (and maybe a little bit of flair) to the right audience, enterprise thought leaders can establish a strong identity for themselves and their company.