Note: This is an edited transcript of one of a number of ongoing Google Wave exchanges between Will Reichard of CrossCut Communications and Benson Hendrix, author of bensonhendrix.com, a blog about public relations, strategy and new media. It is being cross-posted on both sites.
Will: One of the blog ideas I had was about “authenticity”–the importance of a unique voice in an online identity. Being authentic requires courage, self-awareness and practice. Benson, what are some of your favorite examples of authenticity in action in the online realm?
Benson: In addition to the three attributes you named for authenticity, I would add patience and mindfulness, an ability to not only listen to what people are telling you, but to really hear and absorb their words, mulling them over before responding.
One of the first examples that comes to mind for me is Richard Edelman, of the mega-PR firm Edelman Public Relations. While some of the moves his company have made in the online realm have been very questionable (anyone remember “Walmarting Across America?”) Edelman himself seems willing to be authentic and upfront on his own blog.
Dell is always one of my go-to examples for what is right in the online sphere. In addition to selling over $6 million through Twitter (reported naturally enough, on Twitter) Dell has really worked hard to change their image from going through “Dell Hell” to seeking out people with Dell problems and actively engaging them to help fix their problems – I know, I was one of them a few years back. Lionel Menchaca, Richard Binhammer and the rest of the Dell outreach team have done a great job.
Other examples of authenticity online include Bob Lutz at G.M. and the Fastlane Blog, and Scott Monty on the other side of the street at Ford. Both are doing interesting things online to get people excited about their products.
In the PR world, I also like following Richard Laermer and Peter Shankman. Each one has developed a social media presence that is truly a part of themselves, it’s not phony or perceived as a sham.
For smaller companies, or companies that have a one person commanding presence that stands out when you think of that company (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Lee Iacocca) it’s almost easier to use online tools and social media to develop your business presence around that outstanding person, since the two companies are linked already.
Will: Great points, Benson, and I love the idea of quiet consideration before responding–I really think it helps to discover what’s authentic in what one is about to say. I’m also put in mind of your blog post on “swinging back” — namely, that the authentic response is the right one, not just the one that convention dictates is “correct.” Which is another way of saying, textbooks are great, but at some point, you have to leave the crutches behind.
Which brings me back to the idea of courage as a prerequisite for authenticity. And this is especially an issue in social media, don’t you think? You’re operating at high speeds without a net (pun intended).
Here in New Mexico (though with a reach that goes way beyond), I enjoy watching Lee Stranahan in this regard (http://leestranahan.com/). Lee has a unique voice and rarely pulls his punches. It’s not always easy for him, but it’s also a big part of the reason he’s as widely successful as he is.
Benson: Yeah, it’s definitely OK for people to leave the crutches behind and start experimenting with new ideas. And you’re right that courage is needed, not just in authenticity but also in dealing with authority. If you’re unwilling to discuss your concerns with your boss, or you are left in a “need to know” basis, then you will always find yourself in a situation where you have to defensively respond to what’s going on while you try to figure out what’s going on. And you can’t build trust or any kind of authentic value doing that.
Will: Great point–with all the discussion about the role of communications in the C Suite–the “at the table” discussion–maybe we should talk about educating one’s organization on the value of authenticity. As a student of management, I’d have to say this is a great case of “getting what you reward.” Look at JFK, who told his Cabinet he didn’t want a bunch of “yes men.” And yet, that’s very, very difficult to create where there is any imbalance of power (and JFK suffered from that). An organization’s leaders have to (for lack of a better word) institutionalize that attitude.
If you’re looking for truth-to-power types, it’s important to make authenticity a part of the interview process, both for the interviewee and for the organization. You might create some scenarios and ask the interviewee about them. Better yet, when you call his or her references (and you always should), ask them about it. In any case, managers need to build this into their process to avoid groupthink and ensure communications that are thought through and genuine. You have to hold up people who practiced authenticity and let everyone see that not only was that spirit tolerated, it is in fact rewarded. This can be really tough to do! Authenticity isn’t necessarily a comfortable solution.
Readers: What do you think? What role does authenticity play in communications? What examples have you seen?