You don’t need to be in the media, marketing or public relations to recognize that we’re living in an era of opinions. Beyond dialogues in the political arena, now more than ever, freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and freedom of thought have taken center stage in the “battle of ideas.” Clashing ideologies or opposing philosophies are no longer limited to political beliefs. Women across the world have taken to op-eds and bylines to share raw testimonials that have pushed sexual harassment conversations to the epicenter of social issues in an unprecedented way. Former employees of some of the world’s largest tech companies are speaking up about critical faults in Silicon Valley culture and the direction visionaries are taking, attracting great scrutiny from the public. Opinions of all kinds are cascading across sectors, societies, regions…expressing the richness and diversity of our world.
However, it’s important to recognize that an opinion does not a thought leader make. Both hold similarities: A thought leader is, in some respect, an opinion leader. However, the influential, inspirational and motivational effect of the former differentiates it from the latter. There’s also a second component – thought leaders mold their thoughts into action, an action that has a ripple effect. That’s not to say that someone with an opinion can’t lead by example, but thought leadership is tied to some form of a call to action.
Why do so many individuals or business executives aspire to be thought leaders? As public relations and marketing professionals, we very often strategize campaigns to position and elevate subject matter experts as thought leaders – why? Because achieving the status of true thought leadership means that you are in some way, shape or form leading change to influence and generate impact. It means that you’re expressing convictions that challenge the status quo, redefine norms or carve new paths forward in your respective industry. Doing so may start as an opinion, but it doesn’t end there.
In many cases, individuals with wide social influence express opinions that achieve this same effect. But they do so by leveraging a sizeable preexisting platform, not one that was built solely on the foundation of a specific conviction. Conversely, a thought leadership platform is pillared by a specific, clearly articulated message at its core. That message is expressed and communicated in many ways, through various forums, in an ongoing, consistent manner that stimulates impact.
As a public relations professional, I often think of this discernment in my efforts to help clients achieve their goals. At a first glance, this may seem minute, but understanding the need to deeply reflect and critically approach a company’s vision and mission is essential for long-lasting results. A company’s vision and mission offer a clear understanding of where it is, what it believes and where it wants to go – what it wants to achieve. In this respect, vision and mission underpin product, culture and services, so it’s within those two pillars that we must seek to understand how a subject matter expert can achieve thought leader status.
When approaching the thought leadership challenge from this point of view, businesses can more immediately tie resulting visibility to business objectives. Then, a thought leader’s message will not only uniquely reflect the company’s identity, but also drive genuine change.