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Is authenticity a viable notion in public relations? Is it a quality that will serve an organisation well? Or should it only be considered as a by-product of organisational culture and operations, rather than as a driving force? Authenticity is one of those characteristics, like ‘innovation’, which seems to be sought after, viewed as a positive and claimed, yet what is the reality of its application for public relations and marketing purposes?

Public relations as butterfly

People who are not ‘authentic’ in their interpersonal behaviour are not viewed as being admirable. Their influence is limited. They are probably not well liked. For most humans, however, persisting with a facade of being inauthentic is a debilitating process. Who can be bothered? It’s a schizophrenic process.

There are exceptions to this, such as playing ‘camp’, but even then the real person emerges at appropriate times, even if the real is cocoon and the facade is butterfly.

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Organisations are not people

Anthropomorphism is when non-human forms (e.g. organisations) take on the characteristics of humans. I’ve discussed previously how this is an important way for organisations to generate thought leadership and deal effectively with communication in a crisis, but so is it relevant in an ongoing cultural and branding dimension for organisations.

In fact, a consistent theme of my exploration of PR has been the need for organisations to become as ‘non-edifice’-like as possible. Humans are more likely to respond to organisations with anthropomorphic qualities that those that are distant, glacial and clinical.

The anthropomorphism will manifest itself in both organisational operations (including the products and services it provides) and stakeholder relations (i.e. public relations, marketing, sales, customer service etc).

Authenticity is a difficult notion for organisations to grapple with.

How are products like cars, potato crisps and clothes, or services like transport, gyms and cafes meant to convey authenticity? Well, in some of the examples given here I think the answer is obvious. Are waiters sincere in their courtesy with customers, do trains run on time and in a clean condition and do cars deliver on their promises of glamour, reliability etc?

The judge of this will be customers, potential customers and stakeholders.

Authenticity in public relations

If anyone, especially a PR professional, thinks that public relations should have no influence on the qualities of an organisation’s products and services, they are wrong. If PR pros think this, they are selling the capability of our discipline short. In fact, they are getting right up my nose.

There is no discipline more important in the influence of organisational products or services than PR. Because no matter who much money products and services might make an organisation, if in making money they compromise an organisation’s reputation, then the organisation will not meet its objectives and its future existence will be compromised.

As the chief boundary spanner of an organisation (i.e. providing stakeholder feedback to the organisation, as well as selling an organisation to stakeholders) then public relations is relied upon to keep the organisation honest.

In other words, PR is fundamentally relied upon to keep an organisation authentic.

And just like in human-to-human relationships, without authenticity strong bonds will not form. Stakeholders will not return to buy more organisational products if the organisation cannot fulfil its promise of authenticity. Nor will they support or advocate the organisation.

Leadership in authentic PR

The quality of authenticity comes from the top. Organisational leadership must be sincere to be effective; it must be authentic. It must – just like the organisation – deliver on its promise.

The emperor’s new clothes may blind people with their audacity for a while; they may generate acclamation in the short-term; but this will not last for long.

Only behaviour that is considering meaningful, relevant and truthful will generate and maintain stakeholder support, which leads to organisational objectives being achieved.

Organisations that rely on spin, astro-turfing and other such tiresome unethical approaches to public relations will be found out for what they are: inauthentic, lacking in anthropomorphism; and a burden to all these that have chosen – including employees – to have anything to do with them.

Do you have examples of what you call authentic or inauthentic organisational behaviour? Can you explain them and provide comment on whether you thought it worked for the organisation or not? Do you think organisations should have anthropomorphic qualities?

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