Thought Leader Versus Issue Owner – What’s the Difference?

Is there a difference between a thought leader and an issue owner?

I think so.  Here’s my hypothesis: a thought leader makes a meaningful contribution in the discussion, analysis and furthering of an idea or topic in the world of public discourse.  A thought leader is someone whose experience has led to knowledge, and knowledge to wisdom – and who has the confidence required to go out on a limb and state a case.  Given our many years of work in B2B public relations, in most large firms only 5 or 10 percent of the professional staff has ability to become a thought leader – and yet these people are the firm’s make-or-break assets.

You can recognize the thought leaders.  They are discussing topics such as:

– Whether regulators need to change the definition of an accredited investor
– How healthcare records can be shared efficiently without breaking privacy restrictions
– What entities will end up purchasing the assets that the U.S. government has so quickly been accumulating
– What the new business model of the mainstream media will look like, and where all the journalists will be hired?
– How companies can best incent their top performers without triggering public outcries
– How to control intellectual property in an era of digital sharing
– How to move law firms away from the billable hour
– When we will see the true impact of the emerging Chinese middle class

And a dozen other issues just like that.  These folks are often the grey hairs, the rainmakers, the folks within a firm who think the big thoughts and have the experience and the gravitas to give them voice.

An issue owner can be an individual as well, but is more likely an organization.  Either way, to me, an issue owner has made a commitment to a particular field/issue/topic and has dedicated significant resources to advance it.  (Key words: commitment and resources.  Also known as “care factor.”)   An issue owner sees the intersection of an issue with the organization’s future brand and reputation, and it stakes a claim.  Think Volvo and safety.   Think Oppenheimer and women investors.  Think Al Gore and the environment.

At our firm, we spend a lot of our time, imagination, and elbow grease helping our clients become “thought leaders” in their respective fields.  It’s fun, and we are good at it, which is why, at least in theory, we have gathered under one organizational roof.  (Well, more than one roof, but you get the idea.)  But working with a client that wants to become an issue owner is a true, tail-wagging professional delight.  Can you imagine working with McKinsey to envision the “What Matters”?  Or coming up with a new symposium format that will galvanize communities in a manner similar to the TED conference or Davos?

What does it take to be an issue owner?  We’re giving some thought to that.  Watch this space.

In the meantime, what do you think it takes?

(photo by Great Images in NASA)

To reach Abby:

Phone: 212.840.0088
Twitter: @abbycarr
LinkedIn: Abby Carr