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Rolling Stone is the latest in a long line of media outlets to offer industry leaders the opportunity to pay to write for the publication, part of an effort to use content marketing and advertorials to generate new sources of revenue. This kind of strategy, employed as well by Newsweek and Forbes, also points to a growing cognizance of the impact and influence of thought leadership and the eagerness of industry leaders to build a media profile.
It’s an appealing option: you pay a sum of money to guarantee your writing gets into print at a well-known or well-regarded outlet. Seemingly, it circumvents the uncertainty of shopping op-eds around to different outlets, hurdles the bar of strict editorial standards the opinion pages have in place and provides a shortcut around pitching expertise and building a strong reputation with reporters and editors. It seems easy because it is easy.
But is it thought leadership? No. Paying for writing opportunities is part of a content marketing or advertorial strategy, and there’s a role and a use for these paid media strategies. But for college presidents and senior leaders looking to build a thought leadership platform, this is not that.
Media relations and thought leadership, done in a strategic, meaningful way, is hard. It is driven by concrete goals that serve not just the leader but also the institution. Presidents and other leaders looking to enhance their profile need to spend the time to build and execute a long-term, sustainable media profile instead of spending $2,000 to get some content up that likely hasn’t been edited to the same rigorous and robust standard as an earned placement.
While this may work for other industries, it doesn’t work for higher education. As publications create more aggressive paid content and advertorial strategies, their readers are becoming more and more savvy about spotting these placements. What impression do they take from a paid piece written by an institutional leader versus an earned piece, if they even see it at all? Is there a cost to the credibility of the leader or university to engage in an advertorial program?
Another important consideration for time-pressed leaders is how much of a commitment some paid opportunities require. Outlets vary in what their contributors must produce, but even prolific presidents and senior leaders struggle to continuously generate thoughtful pieces at some point. And this can become a burden to deal with, resulting in lower-quality content being churned out to meet a deadline and make the paid opportunity “worth it.” Instead of scrambling to slap some words together for the sake of getting content up, spending time to make an explicit plan to advance thought leadership would be less time-consuming in the long run and far more impactful.
Here's what you can do instead to build out a platform to ensure you’re producing thoughtful, high-quality content:
- Set goals for thought leadership and media outreach. Think about the audiences you’re trying to reach and what outlets are best to accomplish that, as well as how this work aligns with areas of focus for the institution.
- Establish regular brainstorming time with your communications team to mine for content and react to relevant news that could provide opportunities for expertise and written pieces.
- Create a calendar. It is unrealistic to expect a college president to write 12 pieces a year, which some of these pay-to-play opportunities require. Establishing a realistic timeline for pieces and brainstorming in advance of those pieces creates accountability.
- Carve out time to write. Even if it’s just jotting down all of your thoughts after a brainstorming session, sending bullet points to your team for them to expand or reacting to notes from your team, all these exercises help you sharpen your voice.
- Create a plan to leverage your efforts. The success of your piece can be bolstered by sharing with target audiences in alumni and student newsletters and on the website, as well as with a strategic social media plan.
As with most problems, you can’t just throw money at it and expect to have a strong media profile. Rather, you need to dedicate time to developing and executing a strategy, and you must be thoughtful and intentional about your audiences and opportunities. If you do the hard work, you’ll be laying the foundation for a robust media platform, and you’ll be better able to establish yourself as a thought leader.
Erin Hennessy is vice president, and Cristal Steuer is a senior strategist, at TVP Communications.