Have the 'evangelists of authenticity' gone too far?

Authenticity was a topic of conversation in just about every session I attended. But what took me by surprise was the depth of fervor among "evangelists of authenticity" who believe that telling it like it is — raw and unfiltered — is the Holy Grail of effective communication and engagement.

This year, I finally traveled to the epicenter of all things social and digital — South by Southwest Interactive. I went to gain insights into the collective mindset of Millennials and to assist one of our clients, 3M, in hosting activations that showcased the company's mobile and digital technologies for a captive audience of 20- and 30-somethings.

It was hardly breaking news that authenticity was a topic of conversation in just about every session I attended. But what took me by surprise was the depth of fervor among “evangelists of authenticity” who believe that telling it like it is —raw and unfiltered — is the Holy Grail of effective communication and engagement. Here are tales of two evangelists of authenticity whom I encountered at SXSW.

One is Erika Napoletano, who hosted a discussion about her provocative new book, The Power of Unpopular. The basic premise of the book is that brands, like people, can't please all the people all the time. So why even try? Better for your brand to be real, honest, and authentic, and if that means alienating some key customers while others would run through a brick wall in support of your brand, then so be it.

In fairness to Napoletano, I'm oversimplifying her thesis a bit, and I can understand the value of such an approach to smaller companies and start-ups that need to be provocative and edgy to get their voices heard through the cacophony. But such an approach is definitely not one-size-fits-all. Established brands can be honest, authentic, and real without the need to gratuitously push the envelope. That said, Napoletano does make a good point that's relevant for all brands — the opposite of love isn't hate; it's indifference. So brands that push out content that is so bland, vanilla, and generic risk becoming irrelevant over time.

I met another evangelist of authenticity a few hours later. While in line for seconds of BBQ brisket at Guy Kawasaki's SXSW party, I got into a conversation with a fellow PR agency person. Turns out that the two of us attended the same panel a few hours earlier. We both agreed that the panel was not particularly informative and engaging, but I offered my opinion in hushed tones because one of the panelists was in fairly close proximity. This PR person proceeded to tell me that she told the panelist point blank that “his panel sucked” and that she got very little out of it. Then she introduced me to the panelist and told him that I thought his panel sucked too! Fortunately, the panelist was exceedingly polite and gracious to me, and I reciprocated in kind by providing him with feedback and suggestions in a candid, yet polite manner.

In the age of “bare-it-all, tell-it-to-me-raw” authenticity, it's still possible to be courteous, constructive, and authentic — both in the real and virtual worlds.

 Jason Winocour is an agency partner at Hunter Public Relations in New York City.

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