PR firms, too often, are letting their executive clients down. They are encouraging them to stroll out in the public square unclothed and unprepared. Result? Their clients are exposed as leaders without vision.

While that may sound harsh, one has to remember that today's marketplace has become a harsh realm.

EmperorsNewClothes Market influencers — media, analysts, consultants — seem to have decreasing tolerance for bland or boring companies. Nor are they are interested in a particular company's story or product capabilities.

Instead, they are interested in vision. They want to hear from thought leaders — people like Cisco's John Chambers, IBM's Sam Palmisano, or SalesForce.com's Mark Benioff — where the market is headed and what opportunities remain to be seized. The perspectives of such leaders are valued because they are provocative, surprising, credible, clear and relevant. They offer a new and engaging view of the future — a lighted path that represents significant promise. 

But there is clearly room for lesser known leaders — whose firms occupy a specific market segment — to present their own powerful visions.

If their perspectives are compelling enough, they are likely to influence the influencers — encouraging them to write, speak, tweet and all the rest to carry these viral perspectives forward. Market influencers are looking for an illuminating story that will inspire and guide their own audiences, constituents, subscribers, followers and clients. That's what a thought leader can provide.

It's the third party credibility of influencers that executive leaders should be seeking. That credibility enhances brand reputation, builds trust and strengthens confidence among prospects and customers.  

Just consider the example of Gartner. This billion-dollar analyst and research firm has enormous influence over the IT decision-making efforts of Fortune 1000 companies. These companies look to Gartner for guidance and recommendations that will help them invest wisely in technology.

But what does Gartner look for in the IT suppliers it recommends? Two things: Completeness of Vision and Ability to Execute.  These are the central criteria in Gartner's famed Magic Quadrant, a model designed to rank and rate IT vendors. It is designed to categorize them as leaders, challengers, visionaries or niche players.  

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What every supplier wants, of course, is to be recognized as a leader. They want to move to the upper right hand corner of the quadrant where they are most likely to make short lists and close deals. But, as you will notice, one must be perceived as having a complete vision to get there. 

That's where my problem with today's PR firms comes in.

It seems to me that too few have the strengths, expertise and capabilities necessary to help their clients develop and articulate a powerful vision.  They are unable to create the thought leadership assets — the presentations, articles, position papers, case studies, research studies, books — that will engage influencers and, ultimately, buyers.

What PR firms do tend to be very good at is outreach and relationship building. They can reach out to the influencers — the media, analysts, associations, consultants, academics and others who shape the climate of market opinion. They can set up a media tour and put their clients in front of influential people. In some cases, they can even launch social networking initiatives, capitalizing on their ability to  reach out and cultivate connections. 

But there's no use in constantly trying to strike up a conversation when you have nothing of value to add to it. That's where I think PR firms are letting their clients down. They are not enabling them to become true thought leaders and trusted authorities.

Instead, PR representatives are merely repeating the same old tired lines and pitches — sometimes, albeit, in new "social media" venues. And when they put their clients in front of influencers and audiences with nothing provocative to say, they are exposing them to the risk of reputational decline.  

It's time to do better. My simple equation is this: Reach x Relevance = Results. The problem with PR today is that there is far too much (out)reach and far too little relevance. Thought leaders are recognized as presenting relevant and compelling perspectives. They not only engage in conversations, they have something relevant to offer — often sparking conversations without being in the room.

Quite simply, we don't need more naked emperors. We need more thought leaders.

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What do you think? Have I gone too far this time? Or am I on the mark? Please feel free to jump into this (hopefully provocative) conversation.