By Sukanya Sen, ClearWater Initiative



Bess Winston, Principal and Founder of Winston Agency, faculty at Johns Hopkins University

Shonali Burke, President and CEO, Shonali Burke Consulting, faculty at Johns Hopkins University

Robin McClain, Vice of Marketing at Destination DC

Trisch Smith, Executive Vice President, Edelman


Developing an effective thought leader is considered one of the corner stones of a well-rounded communications strategy. But given the range of industries, clients and organizational structures that PR professionals deal with, how can we identify and define an effective thought leader?

“A thought leader is a conversation igniter,” said Bess Winston, Principal and Founder of Winston Agency, as the opening remarks for the Washington Women in Public Relations (WWPR) panel discussion on developing thought leadership. In an engaging and insightful fashion, she went on to explain that thought leaders can exist across a spectrum of experiences. From Madeleine Albright to Malala Yousafzi, each thought leader has captured the attention of audiences, inspiring them to think in different ways. Echoing a similar sentiment, Shonali Burke, President and CEO, Shonali Burke Consulting and faculty member at Johns Hopkins University said, “Thought leaders communicate thoughts in a way that is relatable, inspires further conversation and moves the industry forward.”

The panel also comprised of Robin McClain, Vice of Marketing at Destination DC and Trisch Smith, Executive Vice President, Edelman. Co-sponsored by the Johns Hopkins School of Communication and ColorComm, the panel focused on a range of topics dealing with developing a thought leadership strategy, appropriate channels that amplify the messages of thought leaders and managing audience reactions to what thought leaders say. Each panelist also dwelled on particular instances from their professional experiences when they had to cultivate thought leaders for their organizations or clients.

According to Trisch, in order for thought leaders to sound genuine and authentic, they need to echo the organization’s corporate culture. Thought leaders are not necessarily experts— but somehow differentiated by what they say and communicate. For Robin, this automatically translates in to finding a leader’s inherent personality, positioning and capitalizing on those strengths.

Adding to the discussion on building a communication strategy, Shonali said, “Thought leaders require recognition from their peers. So community building is an important part of building thought leaders. Also, focus on a smart editorial calendar. Don’t throw your leader at every opportunity.”

Moreover, each media platform needs to be conducive to a thought leader’s personality. A thought leader may be more suitable for op-ed or social media and not ideal for a television interview. “Think of Richard Branson or the head of American Red Cross. They would have to behave and act differently, right?” says Bess. According to Bess, thought leaders may also be presented as conveners of a group discussion or ideas—who encourage others industry players to think and debate.

At the end of the day, in order to be heard, thought leaders need to speak. Speech is the most powerful form of expression and thanks to the power of the internet, there are numerous tools at a PR professional’s disposal to reach the right audience.