It’s Time to Unleash Your Inner Unicorn

How communications leaders can make the most of their efforts


Communications leaders are falling into a trap: the “be everywhere” trap. They all feel pressure to be on every platform, in every conversation, and up to date with every new trend. But this endless pursuit of attention and engagement comes at a cost.

“There is a lot of demand for content, but the key question is what are you achieving?” said an executive at a gathering hosted by Atlantic 57 and Russell Reynolds. “I’m often asked to deal with things that aren’t a communications-first problem,” says another. “We need to have strategy and policies first.”

The pressure these executives feel to be everything to everyone hinders their ability to think about communications in a meaningful way. But smart communicators are breaking away from this “be everywhere” trap. These leaders are taking a long view of their communications strategies. They have given up the belief that they can be all things to all people, and instead prioritize the initiatives with the highest potential impact on their institution’s goals.

Finding Your Inner Unicorn

Identify the initiative or project that builds on your organization’s unique strengths, seizing on the value that separates you from your competitors. The decision to invest in a “unicorn” project can have an outsize impact on your bottom-line goals.

The best part is that a unicorn is likely lurking within the work you are already doing. There’s no need to build or invest in something new.

For example, The Atlantic’s online video strategy is based around investing in projects that boost its existing strengths. When many publishers reorganized their content strategy to “pivot to video” in 2017, The Atlantic made less drastic changes. Instead of creating many short hits in the hopes of going viral, the video team doubled down on long-form content. Instead of building out plans for Facebook Live, Periscope, and Instagram, The Atlantic focused on one platform, YouTube. As Digiday wrote at the time, that strategy was “sailing against the winds,” but it aligned with the publisher’s business objectives.

The business objective of The Atlantic was to reach new viewers. The site’s editors knew videos on YouTube would reach more new viewers there than they would on social media, where recommendations were based solely on how audiences’ friends engaged with content. The Atlantic also knew it could continue building on its brand of smart journalism on YouTube, since the platform favored the type of content that loyal Atlantic audiences would expect, like in-depth analysis and documentaries.

Finding its unicorn paid off. Within a year, The Atlantic’s channel had gained over 150,000 subscribers. Some videos even went viral, reaching millions of viewers within weeks of publication.

Strengthening Core Competencies

Strong executives lead communications teams to their unicorns by balancing competing business needs. What differentiates leaders is their ability to work across a spectrum when it comes to setting strategy, executing for results, leading teams, and developing relationships and exerting influence. This is according to Russell Reynolds’ Leadership Span framework, against which the firm assesses senior-level talent.

Organizations needs leaders who can both disrupt the status quo and be pragmatic about the pace of innovation in their organization. Leaders who are too focused on disruption chase every new thing. Leaders who are too focused on pragmatism can wait too long to try the new thing, leaving their organization trailing its peers. The most effective and highest potential C-suite leaders and CEOs are able to actively oscillate between disruption and pragmatism as business conditions require.

But it has become harder for companies to find this skill set. “More is expected of leaders today. The upside is that potential impact on the organizational bottom-line is increased, though this also means that the talent bar is raised,” says TR Straub, Executive Search and Assessment Consultant at Russell Reynolds.

The strongest communications leaders of today marry traditional skills, like storytelling, with digital skills, like analyzing engagement data. These leaders are able to:

  • Sift through metrics to find meaningful measurement points
  • Think beyond the tactics that will make their board members happy
  • Identify and seize opportunities as they arise

Ditching Disruption for Meaningful Change

Communicators create outsize impacts for their organization when they build from a strong foundation. The next time you feel pressure to be everywhere or to become the boldest innovator, don’t “pivot” or “disrupt.” Instead, find new power in your existing strengths.


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