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Jamie Wilkinson says it's empathy, more than authenticity that communicators should be looking for.

Authenticity may not really be what you’re looking for

Recently I was asked to speak in Sydney at the Corporate Affairs Summit, Australasia’s most senior and significant gathering of corporate affairs and communication executives.

These events are always a perilous mix of unusual insight (this year a senior leader from tobacco company Philip Morris was the day one keynote speaker) and potential navel-gazing, as 300-plus communications professionals meet in the same room. But the panel I was on was particularly interesting, even if I do say so myself!

I was asked to discuss the importance of authenticity in professional communications, especially with regards to large-scale consumer communications.

This is a fascinating topic, and one I’ve been thinking about for as long as I’ve been involved in communications. Back in my broadcasting days, the really stand-out, beloved, and, yes, popular, presenters were unquestionably interesting in their world-view, but more than that, they seemed to have a knack for communicating with ‘authenticity.’ I’ve sat in more BBC training sessions than I can remember, where authenticity was the topic of interest.

But after years of considering this topic, I think we’ve been missing the point.

Authenticity is something of a polarising commodity. I once worked with a national consumer-facing brand on its response to an issue, and if the CEO had been genuinely authentic and said what she actually wanted to in her response to the problem, it wouldn’t have been ‘broadcastable!’ So, actually, authenticity is a double-edged sword.

I think a better word for what we’re searching for is empathy.

Empathy is a powerful communications tool (as well as a good human characteristic, of course), and it’s in such short supply these days, that when it’s offered, I think people tend to respond.

A good example of that would be the response by United Airlines a couple of years ago when a passenger was physically dragged from a plane, with a bloodied nose, and the response which followed from the CEO was cold and dismissive. His note included the phrase “a passenger being reaccommodated” which is a rare euphemism for manhandled.

And this quote wasn’t delivered as a video, or via an interview. There was no “real person” delivering it: it was a typed statement posted on United’s social channels with the only context being this was the “United CEO’s response”. An AI program could have responded in a more human way.

If you contrast that with Air Asia’s response after a fatal airplane crash a few years ago, you get a sense that the CEO there (Tony Fernandes) really cared about the issue, and as a result, was seen as being authentic.

Tony used his Twitter account to document his personal actions and response which included physically travelling to be with the affected families. His feed was a string of highly emotional messages which focused on the human impact, the people, and not the reputation and the commercial impacts of the issue.

Empathy is a powerful force to achieve the level of authenticity we’d want to see in a crisis.

If more people understood that, it might not be in such short supply.

 Cannings Purple Director of Digital Jamie Wilkinson is an expert on social media and planning for and managing communications during crisis situations. Email Jamie.

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