Now is the time for all good communicators to step up and lead

It’s not enough to be a mouthpiece for the higher-ups or a liaison among key factions within your organization. You have the power—and a responsibility—to make things happen.

When I was growing up in the world of PR, many successful communicators were primarily doers.

Now, however, communicators must be leaders to be effective.

There are a number of similarities between the skills that have always been required for effective leadership and those needed to be a successful communicator today:

1. Understanding influence

If leaders are “those who have followers,” it’s clear that one can’t be a leader unless one understands and appropriately applies the concept of influence.

It’s as simple as this: “No influence, no followers. No followers, you’re not a leader.”

To be successful, there are two ways in which today’s communications leader must understand and apply influence. The first is the role of influence in communications today. The second is the crucial need for the communicator to have influence among key decision-makers in her or his organization.

Without this, how can they be sure that said organization is strategically using all the tools available under the rubric of PR/communications today? How can they possibly hope that they and their departments are communicating as effectively as possible on their organization’s behalf?

2. Building—and maintaining—trust

Trust has always been a core leadership component, because people follow only those they trust. Fast-forward to an age when trust in media outlets, government and organizations has seriously eroded. To be effective in this challenging environment, communicators must build greater trust between their organizations and journalists, stakeholders, influencers and communities.

It’s communicators’ responsibility to help their organization’s leadership understand the vital importance of trust today.

It starts with explaining that trust takes time to build but can be shattered in a nanosecond—and that once that happens, it takes years to win it back.

Effective communicators must have the guts to say to their leaders, when questionable actions are being discussed, “I understand why you might want to do that, but we must consider how this might damage the trust that various groups have in us, and if this were to be diminished, how that will affect our ability to achieve our strategic goals.”

3. Seeing what comes after what comes next

Leaders have always had to be great prognosticators to be effective, so that they could help their organizations strategically plan for a future that wasn’t yet clear.

Netflix’s leaders have done this time and time again. They saw the flaws in the Blockbuster Video model and enabled people to get their movies on disc and mailed to their homes. That killed Blockbuster. Next, they understood the value of streaming and enabled their customers to get entertainment in that way. Not satisfied with that, they’re now an entertainment creator by offering original, highly desirable programming such as “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black,” and the revived “Arrested Development.”

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In that same vein, those communicators who consistently look around the corner will help their organizations get ahead and stay ahead.

A few years back, some communicators were so focused on the present that they weren’t heeding those speaking about the importance of communications measurement, the impact of mobile communications and mobile marketing, or the value of creating content that consumers wished to upload and share.

Not many of them hold key communications roles today, but their peers with vision are not just surviving, but thriving in a communications environment where seeing what’s ahead is everything.

4. Listening far more than they talk

Surprised that I’m suggesting that both leaders and communicators must do this to be effective? I’m certain that those who get this ratio right are far more successful in achieving desired outcomes than those who don’t.

If leaders want to be effective, their potential followers must connect their values with those of the organization. That happens only when the leader understands these followers’ worldviews, desires and dreams for themselves and, yes, for their organizations.

It’s crucial for communicators, too, whether they’re handling internal or external communications, or both. That’s because they play a unique role as liaison between their organization and its employees, consumers, influencers, stakeholders and stockholders, as well as the journalists who cover it.

Though your role as a communicator is to convey your organization’s top executives’ views to those audiences, the first step and perhaps your most important job is to listen to what these groups are saying. Next, you must report it back to your organizations so that the resulting policies and initiatives can bring about mutually beneficial outcomes.

It all starts with listening.

So, dear communicator, what are you doing to shift from doer to leader? I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments below.

Ken Jacobs is a certified professional coach and is principal of Jacobs Executive Coaching. You can find him at,, @KensViews, or on LinkedIn. A version of this article earlier appeared on Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke Consulting’s community blog.

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