Anatomy of a Communicator

Nick Barron

PR Week recently published its list of the year’s top 20 UK communicators. While any list like this is subjective, it’s worth examining what PR Week’s choices say about the qualities that make an effective messenger in 2020. Here are five key trends the list highlights:

The rise and rise of the instant activist

The most striking thing about this list is how many of the Top 20 are campaigners who, until this year, would not have been thought of as communicators at all. Captain Tom and Annemarie Plas were citizens moved to action by the pandemic, while Naomi Smith was part of the wave of Black Lives Matter activism that swept the Western world this year.  Marcus Rashford, Joe Wicks and John Boyega were known as entertainers rather than thought leaders. Professor Devi Sridhar was an unknown until her blend of expertise and passion propelled her into the media spotlight.

In The Networked Age, the right storyteller can spearhead a movement or lead a debate without pre-established credibility in that space. Activists now emerge overnight, meaning that traditional stakeholder is a redundant exercise without social listening and trend watching.

A weak showing for traditional authority

By contrast to the activists’ strong showing, traditional authority figures scored poorly, with only five business leaders and three politicians making the cut. No journalists, technologists, royals, NGO leaders or religious figures appear in the list. In a year dominated by complex issues requiring technical insight – from epidemiology and climate science, to economics and trade law – Professor Devi Sridhar was the only technical expert to break through, and she was an outsider, critiquing official policy.

For traditional authority figures, it appears that the most effective communicators are generally those who have just started in a new role (Kier Starmer, Rishi Sunak, Sharon White) or those on their way out (Dave Lewis). New faces tend to get a fairer hearing, unencumbered by reputational baggage, while outgoing leaders can speak with a degree of confidence and freedom that lends them an air of authenticity.

The most effective influencers blend traditional and digital communications

Most of this year’s communicators owe much of their success to effective use of social channels, but their work shows that the most effective campaigns combine direct communication and mainstream media platforms. Even digital-first influencers like Joe Wicks, Captain Tom, and the frontline NHS workers relied heavily on earned media coverage to engage at scale. Conversely, David Attenborough used his position as broadcast royalty to build an Instagram following at world record speed.

Visual and action communication are becoming the dominant means of spreading a message

Among the nation’s top 20 communicators there are relatively few great orators – and none that owe their success to the written word. Instead, the list is dominated by people who understand how to use physical performance (Captain Tom, Joe Wicks, Munya Chawawa, visual symbolism (Lewis Hamilton, NHS Workers and Annemarie Plas) and action (Naomi Smith, John Vincent, James Watt and Marcus Rashford) to deliver their messages. Adele even earned her place thanks to her judicious use of silence to avoid getting snared by her social media critics.

In times of crisis, your actions define you

The Top 20 list is a reminder that how communicators respond to a crisis has an outsize impact on their reputation. Times of crises are when your audiences are paying closest attention to your actions and when your values are put to the test.

John Vincent (Leon), Dave Lewis (Tesco), James Watt (Brewdog), Sharon White (the John Lewis Partnership), Andy Burnham (Mayor of Manchester), Rishi Sunak (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Marcus Rashford (FareShare) all stepped up to tackle a crisis and emerged with their reputations enhanced.