14 April, 2019
It sounds simple enough: people don’t like to be lied to. Mistruths, misrepresentations, mis-anythings—they’re all recipes for generating ill-will in almost any circumstance. Brands and public figures are increasingly discovering this as a national yearn for authenticity has called on a transformation of public communication. Surely, companies and politicians will still pedal out messages of what they think people want to hear rather than the whole truth and nothing but it. But there’s this intangible quality to genuine, unfiltered personality that draws people in and creates a closer relationship than any well-crafted spin could.
In politics, this is particularly visible. Even fringe politicians, such as a self-described socialist like Bernie Sanders, are praised for holding values and sticking to them. Sanders’ consistent set of values or the way he unapologetically speaks his mind are things that vocal supporters of Senator Sanders frequently fall back on. Pete Buttigieg, a rising star in the early 2020 Democratic primary, has been praised across-the-aisle for being the “real deal,” a genuine, thoughtful speaker who doesn’t try to give a “typical answer” or resort to “politics as usual.”
At some level, dismantling anything “as usual” is simply populism—it could be viewed as a sort of meta-electoral strategy, a “clever move” to better relate to the voters. Personally, I think this view is a little cynical. Authenticity is simply a new wave of communication strategy where honesty is rewarded, and fluff and spin are recognized for what they are.
The power of authenticity isn’t isolated to politics. Brands are beginning to realize that, by having and sticking to values and by speaking honestly, they can better relate to their key publics. A nice-sounding answer might be the most expedient or convenient option in the short-term, but a strong, consistent ethical persona can create brand loyalty and differentiate companies in a competitive marketplace.
This trend is beginning to be recognized as a generally effective strategy in public relations. According to Regina Luttrell’s Social Media: How to Engage, Share, and Connect, “modern visionaries understand that authenticity, honesty, and personal voice underlie much of what’s successful on the Web.” The strategy of authentic, unencumbered honesty isn’t isolated to digital communications, but it’s particularly necessary in a medium where conversations are archived and contradictions are often a few clicks away. Companies cannot say one thing and do another without the scrutiny of an informed public gazing down on them.
Scattered throughout various industries stand out examples such as Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, Nike, and others. By taking a stand for issues they care about and maintaining consistent values—be they about social justice, the environment, etc.—these companies have built up strong company personas. Just like the successful candidates in the early 2020 Democratic primary, these brands have found a way to cut through the static of “business as usual” in favor of a simple, consistent, and socially relevant message.
The nice thing about this communications strategy is that it’s easy! Do what’s right, and be true to the values of your organization. That doesn’t mean, though, that public relations is now without analysis or thoughtfully crafted communication. Certainly, the process by which companies choose their issues isn’t down to random chance, and it’s likely not all gut feeling. But just because a company chooses a relevant and resonant image doesn’t mean that issue is manufactured, or their position on it any more “false.”