In 2020, a “Thought Leader” is just a Regular Person

Jul 22, 2020

The phrase “thought leader” is one that is thrown around a lot in public relations. And it’s understandable: For any public-facing organization or business, it’s important to have experts on hand who can speak to the public.

However, as someone involved in day-to-day media relations operations at an award-winning PR and marketing agency, I have a major gripe with thought leaders, and I wrote this blog specifically for them and their coaches. In short, my gripe is this: You need to be able to talk about something else other than your products and services. You must be able to speak about something other than your business and your brand.

If you can’t do it, you’re not a thought leader, you’re a spokesman. And there is a difference.

Meet Marc, Human Person

Let’s turn our attention to Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, a cloud computing giant operating out of San Francisco.

Marc founded the company out of his apartment. It has since grown to be a publicly traded technology leader, with a soaring stock value
that has catapulted Marc onto the list of American billionaires.

As you can imagine, Marc has appeared in a number of media outlets. In fact, practically every mainstream news outlet you can think of has
interviewed him at one point or another.

Sometimes Marc is on Mad Money talking about the latest Salesforce contract. But, more often than not, Marc is sitting down to talk to the media about the issues that were always important to him: homelessness, the changing face of capitalism, the failure of technology companies to support their communities, and how CEOs have an obligation to think about how their companies impact social order.

Much of this can be summed up in an interview he conducted with CNBC early in 2020, where Marc emphasizes “stakeholder return” as being of more value to society than shareholder returns.

Considering federal law mandates all CEOs of publicly traded companies must maximize profits, this is a particularly bold statement. It’s also only one of many that Marc has made over the last decade.

“Capitalism as We Know it is Dead”

What does Marc talking about the issues above have to do with Salesforce? Nothing. But, I bet you’ll remember his name and be curious
about what his company does.

Sure, he plugs Salesforce now and then, but mostly Marc talks about his personal views. To back those up, Marc’s non-business philanthropic endeavors match the socioeconomic issues he talks about, culminating in the portrait of a genuine character – or, from a media relations perspective, a genuine thought leader.

Anyone who works in PR or content marketing (or politics for that matter) is aware of the concept of the “soft sell” – an indirect link created between an issue and a person that circles back to what’s being sold. Often this is something crafted deliberately by a media strategist or savvy marketing person.

Even if crafted by a genius, anything crafted is doomed to fail as the world changes. Instead of creating thought leaders, maybe it’s time we task PR professionals with finding them and adding a little bit of polish.

As the economic and government systems in the world evolve, we’re seeing more and more evidence that the public is done with scripted information. In other words, that old “soft sell” carries less weight in 2020 than it did even a few years ago. Sure, the soft sell allows a potential “thought leader” to avoid controversy. But, that’s the problem. You can’t avoid controversy anymore.

Speaking in platitudes and avoiding a conversation about serious issues is a product of the old political and corporate class – a class, I would argue, that is fading rapidly.

I do declare! That is unbecoming of a CEO, good sir!

No one cares. Hate to break it to you, but short of being racist, homophobic, or a closet abuser, no one is judging your lifestyle or personal opinions anymore. And if they are, they’re part of an old guard that is on the way out.

Elon Musk – one of the richest men in the world who may change transportation forever – smoked one of them jazz cigarettes on a comedian’s podcast, where he and host Joe Rogan talked about artificial intelligence conquering all human life.

Other than some fake outrage from the old guard, no one cared. Tesla’s stock is higher than ever, and Elon is still a renowned thought leader, interviewed on a wide variety of topics.

Granted, he does say extremely stupid stuff all the time, but since it’s harmless and he’s just genuinely being himself, the public mostly loves him. And so do his shareholders.

In 2020, thought leaders are people with real ideas who aren’t afraid to be themselves, kind of like Marc Benioff. I don’t know about you, but I would love to sit down with that guy, have a few beers, and talk candidly about how to fix the world’s problems.

Yes, of course Elon is invited, especially since I know how much he and I share a love for video games. It’s BYOB around here though, Elon. I’m not made of money.


If you want to craft a thought leader to garner media interviews, don’t craft them at all. Instead, start just by encouraging them to be themselves.

Encourage them to talk about the issues that are important to them, even if they have absolutely nothing to do with the business they’re in. Lastly, tell them not to be afraid to let their personality shine.

If they’re smart, genuine, and have unique ideas, they’ll be a hit. The new public values people, not corporate magnates.