Nature Abhors a Vacuum, Especially in Thought Leadership.

I resolved earlier this year that I would publish more frequently under my byline. As a marketing, content, and communication strategist and writer, I spend most of my work hours doing that type of work for others. I am not complaining by any stretch, because my work with technology companies and executives is often fascinating. However, like the old cobbler it is far too easy not to do for ourselves.

One of the driving reasons behind this resolution was very straightforward. Creativity drives much of my work, so I wanted to prioritize playtime and creative time outside of the traditional workday. Just as I continue to pick up a guitar and try new things, it is important to have space and time to experiment and evolve. Failure, setbacks, and delays are part of the learning process, but progress is only possible through sustained effort.

I am not alone in feeling a sizeable hangover from the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve already let myself off the hook for the lapse, so now it’s time to get rolling again. In light of current events, I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership, crisis communications, and the invaluable role true experts and thought leaders play in every industry and walk of life.

My caveat is that I strive to be an independent thinker when it comes to politics, but I do have biases based on what I have observed. I will do my best to not dwell on political conjecture and debate but rather to use current events as context to support a few key points.

Lack of Data & Public Distrust Make Trust a Priceless Commodity

The lack of widespread testing in the United States has created a vacuum of data. Current policies and decisions are based on scientific experience, epidemiological best practices and models and a limited, but growing, set of data. The lack of reliable, trusted data is a huge liability regardless of one’s political affiliation. Only in retrospect will we know whether the government response in the early weeks (and months) of the pandemic were appropriate, and everyone’s vision is 20/20 when looking backward.

We are all looking for information to help in risk assessment and decision making at every level. As with any topic, there is debate and disagreement. When elected officials offer conjecture, test balloons, and outright lies during a crisis, it only further deepens the divide between people and distrust in institutions.

The fact that Dr. Anthony Fauci is a global celebrity should tell you all you need to know about the public’s desire for measured communication of known facts. He would have been prominent as a scientific member of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. However, Dr. Fauci had no choice but to step into a crisis communication vacuum.

What does this have to do with broader trends I see around thought leadership?

PR and marketing practitioner Stephen Dupont, asks fellow professionals the following question in a recent PRSA blog, “what will your work look like in 2030?” The following predictions feel like a pretty safe bet, and I would argue that current events are only accelerating our timelines.

Everyone will be online.

Facebook reported that it is closing in on 3 billion total users across its platforms, and they are investing in extending Internet access to everyone.

Everything will be connected.

As of the fourth quarter of 2019, the Ericsson Mobility Report noted that there were 49 million new mobile subscriptions added worldwide, bringing the global total of mobile subscriptions to 7.9 billion

Social media WILL be mainstream media.

President Obama effectively iced out Fox News during his tenure in office, while President Trump views Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Twitter as his most direct channel of communication to his supporters. No shock that politicians play favorites and make decisions as a result. Both campaigns effectively utilized social media platforms (i.e. Facebook) to connect with voters during their campaigns. Facebook Vice President, Andrew Bozworth, called the 2016 Trump campaign the best digital ad campaign ever, and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, is positioned to do it again.

“Traditional Media” is a business, and businesses make money by giving their customers more of what they want. Cable news channels seem to be doing alright financially precisely due to the polarized political dynamic that they wittingly or unwittingly feed. They give people what they want. As for local media, think the title of the March 2019 article in The Atlantic says it all, “Local News is Dying and Americans Have No Idea.”

Where does that leave social media platforms?

Because of the 2016 Russian hacking story, the US government has pressed Facebook to be more proactive in policing content published on its platform. Mark Zuckerberg has long argued that Facebook is a platform for free speech. As a technology and platform company, he argued that Facebook should not be responsible for the factual accuracy of the content on its platform. However, the company has been forced to monitor content on the platform and make editorial judgment calls as a result. To a lot of people that feels like censorship, but Facebook has been pushed into a corner.

I value the reporting and commentary from Wired Magazine on this topic, among other outlets, and recommend reading “Why Mark Zuckerberg’s Oversight Board May Kill His Political Ad Policy

Trust will become priceless in a world of actual fake news (deep fake digital images).

If the Star Wars can insert deceased actors into its sequels, we should all understand that deep fake videos will become more prevalent. Given the fact that information warfare is mainstream, people will need to be even more skeptical of the information they are viewing. (See CNET article titled, “Chinese operatives reportedly stoked coronavirus lockdown panic in the U.S.”)

The World Needs Credible Thought Leadership.

My family is from the Midwest, so I grew up visiting my grandparents in Independence, Missouri. The phrase “show me” was ingrained, so I carried that mindset with me in my career in public relations, communications, marketing, and content. It’s always better to show someone than tell someone. Not sure how pudding relates, but the proof is there too (yet another marketing channel?)

Being smart is cool these days because smart offers the populace a seemingly safe path out of the darkness. Dr, Fauci is a thought leader because of his significant body of work. He built credibility among a community over a long period. He showed us before most of us knew his name. His brand is also the unfortunate beneficiary of a global pandemic. The world presented his opportunity to serve based on what he had already shown along with his time to shine.

Yes, some people disagree with Dr. Fauci. Yes, there are theories about him that are conspiratorial. Yes, being a global, cultural icon comes with a matching set of heavy luggage. This reminds me of a great quote from Teddy Roosevelt that Brené Brown helped popularize in her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

On a corporate level, those companies that navigate the pandemic from a brand and reputation perspective will have an incredible strategic advantage. They will benefit because they are focused on serving their employees, customers, and communities. They will show us they care, and we will show them our appreciation with our financial support.

My call to action for anyone reading this is to think about how you can showcase your body of professional work across a community. While I doubt the stakes will be higher than those facing Dr. Fauci and other leaders in the time of COVID-19, you will be well-positioned to deliver and derive value from the community you have chosen to serve.

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