McKinsey’s Thought Leadership Called Into Question: A B2B Public Relations Lesson

In PR, there is nothing worse than having your credibility called into question. Professional services firms live or die by their reputations, and these reputations are based heavily upon thought leadership. That’s why it has been fascinating to watch the coverage unfold over the past few weeks around McKinsey & Company’s study on employer-provided health insurance.

McKinsey, whose intellectual capital is typically the gold standard for consulting firms, has been slammed by the media about the study’s vague methodology and questionable results. The fallout provides some important reminders for public relations professionals and our role in the thought leadership development process:

  • Act Like a Journalist. It’s your job to know the media – and that means more than just identifying interesting news hooks for intellectual capital that is produced. You also need to play critic and ask the tough questions. What questions could be raised by the media? Where are there gaps and do you have a reasonable explanation for them? You must identify and push on areas where there are weaknesses. If you’re dealing with a politically-charged issue like the impact of healthcare reform, then you also must be prepared for a firestorm no matter how well you prepare.
  • Defend Your Point of View. The McKinsey study’s results contradicted studies from other highly respected sources such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Urban Institute. And upon further digging, reporters discovered that McKinsey’s own Bowen Garrett authored the Urban Institute study that was used by the White House to refute McKinsey’s report. Oops. Know what you’re up against, and be sure that you’re not contradicting yourself while you’re at it. Contradiction always makes interesting news, but you better be prepared to defend yourself with reasonable explanations, solid research and transparent data – not go silent.
  • Be Transparent. That’s PR 101. There will always be certain proprietary information that professional services firms can’t share when it comes to research. But there still must be enough details available to prove the validity and credibility of your data. “Trust me” doesn’t work with the media, nor does silence.
  • Offer Context. This is particularly important if you’re dealing with complex topics, or heated issues like healthcare. The McKinsey study asked respondents about whether or not they would maintain health coverage for employees after the Affordable Care Act has taken full effect, then touted predictions that there would be a dramatic drop in coverage. However, as Paul Krugman points out, 58% of those respondents “didn’t know” how much their companies spend on health benefits per full-time employee –calling into question how knowledgeable these sources were about the issue. When you’re summarizing survey data, information can be easily skewed – details matter. And if your credibility is being attacked, you also need to carefully consider the source as well.


Everyone is moving faster these days, but speed shouldn’t equal carelessness. One of the core purposes of public relations is to help organizations establish trust and credibility with its various stakeholders and the public. That means asking the tough questions internally that people want to duck.


What lessons did you take-away from the McKinsey controversy?


Photo by The Hidaway (Simon)


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