Make sure 'authentic' equals 'real'

The word du jour in the PR industry these days seems to be "authentic."

The word du jour in the PR industry these days seems to be "authentic." We are told that our mission, in part, is to help clients find their "authentic" voice; that companies need to behave in an "authentic" manner to win and retain customers; that executives should embrace "authentic" forms of communication like blogs and podcasts.

Just because the phrase is overused, however, and sometimes lacks meaning, doesn't mean the sentiment is misplaced. In fact, quite the opposite: transparent and honest communication, good corporate citizenship, and genuine concern for customer service are absolute necessities for companies and brands, irrespective of the industry or geography.
However defined, this type of authenticity is no longer optional - it is essential.

While authenticity is a fairly new concept in the corporate world, however, it's an old one in the political sphere. Of course in politics, it's not really about being authentic, but rather appearing authentic. Or as legendary movie mogul Sam Goldwyn put it, "If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made."

With the presidential nominating process underway, authenticity and sincerity seem to be in full bloom. After 20 years of public life, Hillary Clinton has finally "found her voice." How? By choking up at a campaign event after a question. It was a spontaneous act of inspired campaigning, which perhaps helped with her surprise win in New Hampshire.

Mitt Romney didn't find his voice - he found something better: his wardrobe. The man with the perfect hair, sparkling teeth, tailored suits, and shiny cufflinks failed to connect with early state voters, but "Mitt the everyman" - with his open collar, rolled up sleeves, and working-man rhetoric - pulled off impressive victories in Michigan and Nevada. Should he win the Republican nomination, Vegas should place odds on which guy shows up: "CEO Mitt," "everyman Mitt," or "Mitt 3.0."

But the award for "most authentic attempt at an inauthentic makeover" goes to John Edwards. Sensing that voters might have trouble buying his rhetoric about "spending a lifetime fighting poverty" while he lived in a mansion, Edwards - like sartorially confused Mitt - underwent a bit of a makeover. Gone were the suits - replaced by jeans, ugly shirts, and a thicker southern accent.

To be fair, the fine art of "contriving authenticity" didn't begin with the current crop of White House aspirants, and it likely won't end there either. Ronald Reagan's handlers tried to assuage concerns about his age by having the president play touch football on the beach. John Kerry took an ill-advised hunting trip, just weeks before Election Day to show red state voters that he was a gun toting everyman, just like them. And who can forget the image of Michael Dukakis wearing an oversized helmet, joy riding around in a tank, as though it would somehow prove his military bonafides.

Hopefully, corporate America will look past politicians on their own journey to authenticity.

Nick Ragone is an SVP at Ketchum and author of Presidents Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Extraordinary Executives, Colorful Campaigns, and White House Oddities, due out today.

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