Fern Lazar & Arielle Bernstein Pinsof
Fern Lazar (L) and Arielle Bernstein Pinsof co-authored this article.

We live in a different world from just a generation ago. As the climate has changed drastically, so has the communications environment. This includes the opportunities—and expectations—for executives to step forward as thought leaders.

While it was once enough for leaders to focus on balance sheets and quarterly earnings, these basic, public-facing, corporate communications duties no longer provide a platform to elevate the visibility, nor to distinguish the reputation, of the individual or their organization. Rising above the fray of business dealings and beyond the value proposition of product and service offerings, true thought leadership ties executives and companies to their purpose—and in so doing, creates consumer affinity with their causes and brands.

It’s proven that companies that align business strategy with culture and purpose outperform other companies, and this is a key insight for executives seeking to step forward as leaders. In our thought leadership programs, success is created by viewing the work through the lens of changing the world. The leader of an organization sets the tone for the culture and purpose of the enterprise, but one of the things that’s happened in this changing environment is that corporate leaders have become hesitant to take strong public positions. When we look at those leaders who are willing to do so—and to discuss these positions strategically through key campaignable themes—we see executives whose sustained communications programs are building trust and reputation in the wider community.

This doesn’t happen by accident or through lucky alignment; it takes intentional preparation. Here are five ways thought leaders are made, and how their leadership can align organizational culture and build brands.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's October '23 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
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Authenticity requires depth and alignment. Being authentic isn’t just about speaking from personal belief and conviction, though that’s essential. Authenticity comes together when an executive’s passion and personal belief are aligned with business imperatives to drive real, measurable action on behalf of a key societal issue. For example, longtime Merck CEO Ken Frazier, through his public positions, principled actions and alignment with company purpose, won the respect of those who were openly critical of the pharmaceutical industry.

Unite around campaignable themes. To best coordinate the thought leadership of multiple executives and ensure their activities and writings ladder up to the company’s purpose and key differentiators, it’s essential to first define campaignable themes that align to business objectives as well as mission. Then, define “swim lanes” for each executive that differentiate their areas of focus and ensure that each complement each other while supporting the company’s overall commitment to advancing issues that contribute to societal good.

Create emotional connections with essential audiences. When executives are provided the guardrails of their unique swim lanes, they can feel a remarkable freedom of head and heart in connecting with a company’s most important values, and thereby its most important audiences. Each executive can speak to the patients and providers their company serves, but they also have the ability to address those with whom a company needs to connect in the wider ecosystem, including policymakers, payers and others, to rally support for critical issues. Leaders who tell stories that tap into the emotions of their audience, whether hope, empathy or determination, foster trust and a sense of shared purpose. By sharing personal stories of their own struggles, failures and triumphs in seeking to affect change, leaders show they’ve faced challenges and have persevered, making them more approachable and stirring others to overcome their own obstacles.

Bring a face and human voice to science. Science has been politicized for partisan purposes with the result that the public increasingly views scientists with skepticism and even distrust. Putting a human face on science is essential to winning hearts and minds in the current communications environment. By conveying the humanity of those who are committed to improving life through medical research, it’s possible to re-establish trust and build better relationships. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s recent, candid assessment of the potential harms posed by social media to America’s teens and young people conveyed a humane, responsible, scientific voice, unafraid to speak out on behalf of patients.

Choose platforms wisely. A thought leader’s words should be presented clearly to be understood and their arguments delivered to persuade readers to act. This requires careful consideration of the channel and platform. Accessibility is valuable, but so too is positioning a thought leader to convey their viewpoints with clarity and impact, unfiltered by an editor’s judgment or the confusing flurry of personal opinions that inevitably follow social media posts. To communicate thought leadership effectively, consistently and compellingly, our strategies favor opinion pieces over interviews, and blogging on LinkedIn and Medium over posts to X.

There’s an old adage: Don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do. The ability of committed executives to share thoughts that stake out a strong position—validated through company policies for change, creates a bond between exec/company and constituents. Aligning passion and purpose allows thought leaders to build stronger relationships with audiences and win the respect of even the most critical pundit.

For years, CEOs were judged by performance alone, but those days are past. Performance is table stakes: Executives today must take actions that build trust and demand respect.

In the health sector, this is all the more essential. Lives, and quality of life, are at stake. Stepping apart from the crowd with authentic and differentiated points of view is the key; simply being quoted in a press release about earnings or regulatory milestones isn’t enough. While these announcements speak to progress and performance, executives are often left wondering why their quotes and interviews aren’t memorable, why they’re not building reputation. They forget that every other executive out there is saying much the same thing, sharing the same buzzwords about patient-centricity and innovation.

At its heart, thought leadership is about effecting positive change. Thought leaders are those who speak honestly and authentically, take a position on an important issue and act to help solve that issue. Expressing thought leadership is the chance to share what you believe, to take a position on a high-level issue, to outline how that issue can be effectively addressed and to rally society, colleagues, co-workers and specific stakeholders to solve that issue. And by rallying support to drive change, a successful corporate thought leader elevates their brand by actually making a difference in the world.


Fern Lazar is Global Health Practice Leader at Finn Partners. Arielle Bernstein Pinsof MPP, is Senior Partner at Finn Partners.