Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

Who Gets a Byline? Adjudicating Authorship

Because thought leadership is often a team sport, determining authorship on everything from a major research report to a short blog post can be tricky. Here are three ways to approach it.

Here’s a familiar scenario: One of your top subject matter experts comes to you – the thought leadership program leader – with a novel (dare we say “killer”) problem-solving approach developed by the six-member team that she leads. Importantly, it’s on an issue your company wants to own (i.e., be seen as a top expert). The team has piloted the approach with a few friendly clients and generated results.

She asks you to turn the team’s concept into an article. But as the content development process progresses, you realize some members of her team are contributing more ideas, explanations and big insights than others. Once the content development process ends, she asks if all six people on the team can get bylines. Most articles your firm publishes have no more than three authors; a handful have four.

What should you do?

A Decision Fit for King Solomon

Because thought leadership is often a team sport, determining authorship on everything from a major research report to a short blog post can be tricky. Some firms’ automatic response is to acknowledge everyone’s contributions with a byline. In their minds, it encourages fair play, collaboration and future involvement in thought leadership content. However, giving bylines to half a dozen contributors can look silly. And as we have seen repeatedly over our many years of advising B2B firms on thought leadership strategy and content development, various parties often play vital but unequal roles. To put it bluntly: Not everybody deserves a byline.

Nonetheless, if some don’t get a byline, how do you avoid discouraging them from participating again? As a thought leadership program leader, you’ve likely encountered such authorship dilemmas. For instance, how do you deal with senior executives who want authorship credit when they had little if any involvement in developing the idea? Or in special cases, what do you do when a well-placed senior leader wants to flout long-standing byline rules for a high-flying junior associate?

Three Ways to Defuse Arguments Over Authorship

Over the years, we’ve seen these scenarios play out and be decided to various degrees of dissatisfaction for all involved.  Here are three approaches to reduce contention over credit in thought leadership content, and our rationale on how to render a final verdict in an intellectually honest and equitable manner.

Decode the chain of custody. Rewind the tape. Who began the conversation and developed the initial idea? Who helped vet, document, and stress-test the underlying concepts? Who secured the funding to convert the ideas into a deployable solution? Who worked hand in hand with the thought leadership team (ghostwriters, editors, etc.) to frame the narrative, assess the documentary evidence, and write the prose? Keeping score along these lines may seem petty, but it will go a long way in determining who gets authorship.

  • The verdict: Rank the contributions of key team members and limit the byline to the top three (as long as they were substantially involved in the entire process). Anyone else who contributed in a piecemeal or tangential way can be credited in an “Acknowledgements” section at the end of the article.

Think beyond hierarchy. We’re sure you’ve seen this before. Junior members of a team – often the folks much closer to the client action – have a germ of an idea. They spot problems and solutions before the senior folks, who are often far removed from clients’ day-to-day challenges. They develop the idea and brief the lead expert, who weighs in and claims it as a team project. By “team,” he means that the junior members will continue developing the idea while he seeks approval from his higher-ups to build out the concept, removes organizational obstacles, and finds resources to get business as usual client work done while the content is being developed. Ultimately, he is the one who works with the thought leadership team on content development. What we have seen far too many times: When the final asset is ready, he claims sole authorship credit, noting that thought leadership credit is limited to senior executives at the firm. (This is the case at many large management consulting and IT services firms.) 

  • The verdict: This article is not likely to have been published had the lead expert not taken ownership of the process. But since it wasn’t his idea, can he really be awarded authorship? In this case, it makes sense to award him a joint byline with one or two junior team members whose participation was invaluable. Having his name on the piece might attract more attention on your website or on social media. It might open a few client doors where he is a household name. Again, anyone else who contributed can be credited in the acknowledgements.

Understand emerging organizational power dynamics. Many modern organizations have adopted operating structures known as a “wirearchy,” which pivot around tight interpersonal relationships that don’t follow a traditional hierarchical reporting structure. In such a structure, a well-connected junior-level associate who is considered a high-potential employee can sometimes operate outside of the conventional rules of engagement. When that person has a breakthrough thought leadership idea, she lacks the authority to push it forward. A senior vice president in her wirearchy empowers her to get her big idea published, requesting the help of the thought leadership team. Once they complete the content, the SVP suggests that this high-potential associate get the byline – pleading for special dispensation from the senior director or higher rule for thought leadership authorship. 

  • The verdict: You bite your tongue and give her sole authorship. You understand that this is an exception, not the rule. More important, if the byline helps this highly talented individual generate buzz for her big idea, you are doing your organization a great service – particularly if it illuminates your company’s expertise and portrays its willingness to showcase the thinking of junior associates. (That could also help your firm recruit and retain a younger demographic.)  You should also highlight in the acknowledgments section the role the senior VP played in getting this piece of thought leadership published. This way, if there is internal blow-back on your decision to not follow the senior director-or-better authorship rule, you can invoke the name of the SVP who made the request.

These are but a few of the authorship credit conundrums that thought leadership program leaders face. In businesses like management consulting firms, subject experts face a publish or perish challenge. They are hell-bent on getting authorship credit on any thought leadership they touch. Visit your favorite management consulting firm’s thought leadership web pages and you will see authorship credit gone wild. In fact, some articles credit a half a dozen or more subject experts as co-authors and list tens more in the acknowledgements section.

By following these recommendations, you can accurately and honestly give authorship credit where it is deserved and reward others for their contributions. Perhaps most importantly, you will encourage the fair play and innovative thinking that is essential to developing and extending eminence for your organization and its teams. These values, beliefs and behaviors are core to organizations with strong thought leadership cultures.

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