Silence is not an option – why op-eds are essential and effective

Newspaper opinion columns are a high-profile opportunity for business leaders to bolster their reputation and extend their influence by sharing their insights or guidance

Having your views published in the opinion pages of a respected newspaper has always been potentially valuable for corporate image. But companies have often battled against the impulse to hold the strong views needed to entice editors to publish their thoughts. The trade-off between publicity and possible deterrence of customers was often decided in favour of silence.

But the relationship between a company and its stakeholders is fast evolving, and the worth of opinion columns amid the digital glut of content is rising. Silence today is far less of an option.

First, customers, employees and potential recruits increasingly expect companies and executives to stand up and be counted on the big issues in their sectors. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey of more than 33,000 people worldwide, 76 per cent of respondents want CEOs to take the lead on change rather than waiting for governments to impose it.

This expectation is increasingly being met by companies understanding that well-crafted thoughts are a powerful way to cut through the noise and bolster reputation. Recent research by political scientists at Yale shows that newspaper columns (“op-eds”) do change minds – 65 to 70 per cent of people who had been given an op-ed to read agreed with the views expressed immediately after reading, compared with 50 per cent of people in a control group who had not read the article.

Op-eds then are a perfect way to both build company reputation for insight and trust, and meet growing audience demand for corporate integrity as a pre-requisite for doing business. We the audience would truly like to hear from companies today: with politics and business colliding in areas ranging from climate change to trade tariffs, gender equality and the security of 5G networks, there is such a huge scope for executives to make a meaningful contribution on the most pressing issues facing society.

Apple CEO Tim Cook and his counterpart at Google, Sundar Pichai, have both this year used op-eds, in Time magazine and the New York Times respectively, to make their case for taking data privacy seriously, for example. Cook used his to call for federal privacy regulation in the US, while Pichai set out the ways Google uses data to make life easier while protecting user privacy.

Safer than a news story

Being published by an external media source by definition adds validation to an opinion: Edelman’s survey shows that the traditional media, despite its travails, is still trusted by 64 per cent of people compared with 44 per cent for social media.

And the combination of a well-known person or organisation and an established news outlet cuts through crowded social media feeds. Dialogue develops when readers engage with the point of view both directly via social media and by leaving comments under the article online, and indirectly by sharing the piece among their own followers.

For companies, op-eds also offer the chance to express a view on their own terms. Although the article is published away from the company’s website, op-ed editors usually do minimal tinkering with the opinions contained within, which can be reassuring for executives.

“It allows clients to articulate their point of view in their own words and without the risk of misinterpretation that can occur in an interview,” says Alex Gee, director at strategic communications consultancy Mackworth Associates, which has helped clients place op-eds in publications including the New York Times and Fortune magazine. “For them, it has all the benefits of reaching a large audience without the risk.”

A change in what and how we communicate

“In the last ten years, social expectations of what CEOs and corporate leaders should provide has changed radically,” says Leslie Crawford, former opinion editor at the Financial Times. “The idea has taken root that they are accountable not only to their shareholders and employees but to a wider group of people called ‘stakeholders’.”

The US Business Roundtable, made up of the CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies including Ford and JPMorgan, has recently formalised that sentiment. Last month, it changed its definition of the purpose of a corporation to say that shareholder interests no longer come first; instead the group calls on companies to create an “economy that serves all”, including employees and the communities they work in, as well as customers, suppliers and shareholders.

Expressing a personal view is also not just accepted now, it is positively encouraged – and it can put companies in a position to drive change when governments are falling short, adds Crawford.

“CEOs have much more freedom to comment on things that a decade ago they did not think they were licensed to comment on,” Crawford says. “This has ushered in the era of the CEO with a mission that goes beyond generating shareholder value. Companies can be game changers, responding to the public mood before governments.”

Alan Joyce, the CEO of Australian airline Qantas, for example, stepped in to the country’s equal marriage debate in 2015 with an opinion piece in The Guardian, calling, ultimately unsuccessfully, for parliament to simply change the law rather than allow a potentially messy and divisive public vote. However when the public vote happened in 2017, Australians voted 61 per cent in favour of equal marriage.

Influencing a wider audience

Taking the platform offered by a respected news organisation and using it to say something original and insightful is a significant opportunity. And it is not reserved for big name CEOs – opinion editors are looking for experts who can offer a unique perspective on issues affecting society more broadly. A recent Washington Post op-ed by the president of the Marshall Islands (population 55,000) goes beyond the existential threat the tiny country faces as a result of rising sea levels to address the risks faced by the 800 million people living in low-lying coastal cities worldwide.

The Post and other publications are read and followed by people that could influence the direction of industries now or in the future, from heads of state down to students thinking about their first graduate job. They offer a high-profile platform for executives to set out their values and argue their case to the people who matter to them.

Willie Walsh, the CEO of British Airways’ parent company IAG, used an op-ed in the Financial Times to criticise the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for allowing Heathrow to charge monopoly prices for airport improvements and then pass the cost on to airlines and their passengers. He gives an example of self-boarding gates which cost £20,000 to buy; British Airways asked Heathrow to provide 36 of them at Terminal 5. The estimate for the work which came back was not for £720,000, but for £7.8 million.

By publishing it in the FT, Mr Walsh put his point of view in front of the right stakeholders: sophisticated investors who own shares in airlines and don’t want their returns reduced by the wastefulness, and politicians who are in a position to put pressure on regulators to get a grip on costs.

In this way, the value of an op-ed goes far beyond keeping control of the message, adds Gee of Mackworth Associates:

“You’re going to reach a more targeted audience than through Twitter or LinkedIn – if you publish in the New York Times, people who regularly read it will see what you have to say, and you piggy-back on the authority of that outlet – readers trust it has been fact checked, for example. You also get 750 words to make your point, rather than 280 characters on Twitter.”

Five steps to writing a successful op-ed

How can companies secure a spot in the op-ed pages of well-respected publications in their sector – and make the most of the opportunity when they do?

Step 1: Consider your audience

Before you begin writing, the first thing is to choose the most appropriate publication for the point the company or executive wants to get across. That could be a trade magazine for an industry-specific issue, or a national or international publication if it relates to regulation or public policy.

Step 2: Offer something new

Next, the CEO or other prominent executive must make sure they have something new to say. Look at what’s already been written in the target publication on the same subject.

“Editors are not looking for people in certain positions to say what’s expected of them,” says Holly Yeager, a former Washington Post editor who has also advised thinktanks on publishing op-eds. “It can’t be ‘salesman of X says buy more X’. But if someone says ‘I’m in the popcorn-maker business and here’s how tariffs are really affecting me and the people I employ,’ that makes a big policy conversation human and relatable.”

Step 3: Be specific

Op-ed authors must make the most of the fact that it will be their name at the top of the piece, Yeager adds: “Make points only you can make because of your particular experience, and establish your expertise.”

The Financial Times this year published a set of guidelines for potential op-ed contributors, saying: “We particularly relish pieces that highlight unexpected places, explore new ideas and illuminate diverse points of view. We also want our opinion pieces to be punchy, readable articles that make strong arguments; and we have a soft spot for writers who demolish conventional wisdom or dissent from opinions we have already published.”

Step 4: Start a dialogue

Companies should be flexible when they contact newspaper and magazine editors. “The last thing a newspaper wants is someone to pitch a finished piece,” says Yeager. “The conversation should start with the company saying ‘we’re working on a piece saying such-and-such, would you be interested?”

A comment piece that ties in to a specific deadline, such as a vote or a piece of legislation coming into force, can also be a good approach, she adds. But companies should be organised and prepare for this ahead of time because rival organisations will also want to get their view out there.

Step 5: Write it

Having done the groundwork, there are five golden rules to follow when you come to write the piece:

  1. Tailor it to who will be reading
  2. Write about what you know
  3. Write clearly and accessibly
  4. Use specific examples to make your point
  5. Be pithy and sharp