What to do when a thought leader leaves your AEC firm

October 28, 2022

Ascribing authorship of an industry topic to an employee at your architecture, engineering or construction (AEC) firm comes with one glaring risk. What if they leave? That happens. In fact, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, it happens often. The median tenure for architecture and engineering occupations is just 5.2 years, a little higher than the average wage and salary worker. 

While it may be tempting to publish thought leadership articles under your company’s name or a made-up moniker like “Construction Chip” to avoid the problem altogether, there is a benefit to having a visible expert. 

Clients trust original content presented by an individual more than they do information presented by a brand. In content marketing, specifically thought leadership, the idiom “put a face to the name” proves helpful, and companies benefit when their employees raise their own profile. However, if one of your company’s thought leaders decides to end that mutually beneficial relationship, don’t panic. Here’s what you should do instead:

Step 1: Identify why they left

The reason your thought leader left your company will likely inform your approach moving forward. For instance,  if it was an amicable split, that would make the process less complicated but there would still be some factors to consider before taking  your next steps. Did they leave the industry? If so, perhaps it no longer makes sense to attach their name to the content they produced for you, as it’s no longer their area of focus. However, if the former employee was involved in scandal, you may need to acknowledge that and own the narrative. You would also want to clarify this person is no longer affiliated with your brand and erase all ties to them. 

Did your subject-matter expert (SME) leave to pursue an opportunity with your competition? That’s a little trickier. It might be confusing for your clients to see your brand associated with someone who now works for your competition, but distancing yourself may be perceived as petty. Regardless, you may need to in order to distinguish yourself from the articles they draft in the future for your competition. One thing to consider though, is whether you foresee them raising their profile in the future. It might benefit you to keep their bylines on your website. They could be the next Bill Gates!

Step 2: Weigh your options

Once you determine why your SME is gone, you have several options to consider regarding the next steps. Below are various approaches and the pros and cons of each option.

1. Business as usual: You don’t delete the thought leader’s content or re-attribute their articles. The benefit to this approach? If that former employee continues to build a great reputation across the architecture, engineering and construction industries after they leave, that reputation will continue to work for your firm’s brand. It also makes your company appear more transparent, gaining your audience’s trust. Not to mention you continue to reap the search engine benefits of their content. 

However, it’s not all positive. If that former employee goes on to become embroiled in a scandal, it could taint your reputation. In addition, if you have not established clear content ownership rights, you could run into legal problems if the departing employee claims they own that content because they wrote it. 

To avoid these issues, formulate a clear policy on ownership and authorship of employee-generated content, during and after employment. This would include adding a “works for hire” clause to your employement contract. 

Update the SME’s biography with “former” included before their job title so readers know they’re no longer with the company. You will also want to inform your marketing department and/or the PR firm you’re working with that the SME has departed and offer a new one in their place. This ensures all future thought leadership pitches are rerouted to the appropriate source. Lastly, confirm any pending projects are reworked to include a new thought leader’s name and biography.

2. Burn it to the ground: Delete the author’s biography and all former posts from your website and move forward. This approach offers the most brand protection. There may be circumstances under which severing the connection entirely would be wise. Suppose for some reason the former employee becomes a public disgrace, or simply starts moving in a direction that taints their reputation (and possibly yours). In that case, you should consider disassociating your company from all the content attributable to them. 

This approach offers the least transparency, as you’re essentially erasing all traces of their work on your website, which could cost you the trust of your readers. You also lose any search engine benefits from letting their content live on your website or blog. That’s a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face. If the circumstances don’t warrant this heavy-handed approach, I would advise against it. 

However, if it is necessary, then your next steps would be to (figuratively) scorch the earth. Scrub your website of any proof of their existence. You will still need to formulate a clear policy on ownership and authorship of employee-generated content, lest that former employee copy and paste their bylined articles to a new website. 

3. Find the middle ground: Leave the articles up but reassign the departing thought leader’s byline to a generic company profile. I KNOW, I KNOW. You’re thinking, but she just wrote that companies need visible experts. This is one exception and I will explain why. Blogs are usually linked to the author’s biography and comments are usually routed to their emails. Leaving the information as is redirects readers to pages/emails that no longer exist.

In this case, your next steps would be relatively simple. You can choose to use a generic company email (i.e. Comments@CompanyName.com) in the boilerplate, so all email communications are routed to a core group rather than an individual. That saves you the hassle of having to do this retroactively each time a thought leader departs your company. 

Step 3: Take appropriate action

Regardless of how you choose to proceed if your thought leader leaves, doing nothing is not an option. Implement the plan detailed under each option and examine your website’s monthly unique visitors data to track the results. It may sound like a lot, but know that the risk of losing your visible expert is still worth the reward of personalizing your marketing strategy and gaining the loyalty of your readers.

According to a 2021 study from global communications firm Edelman and LinkedIn, “65% of buyers say thought leadership significantly changed the perception of a company, for the better, due to a piece of thought leadership.” That’s because readers recognize that authoring a compelling thought leadership article takes commitment and knowledge. Plus, you may forget a name, but you never forget a face.

Still have questions about how to handle your thought leadership program after a key subject-matter expert leaves your company? Email me at info@rep-ink.com.


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  • About the Author
    Marja Martinez

    Marja Martinez is a creative storyteller who has spent nearly a decade developing digital content that moves people. Before making the switch to PR, Marja worked as a broadcast journalist writing hard-hitting news stories, creating compelling online content and engaging with thousands of viewers on multiple social media platforms.

    Read my full bio or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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