What is Authenticity in a world ruled by social networks?

A fellow marketer recently advised the CEO of a mid-sized company on dealing with a social media crisis. Essentially the CEO had been personally attacked by the host of an online forum, for reasons that are not important but not unsubstantiated either. Regrettably, the CEO insisted on personally responding to the anonymous critics on their page, in defiance of her marketing team’s advice, believing that authenticity and transparency is the best policy. Needless to say, she was massacred and in the end had to halt responding as wave after wave of new accusations surfaced with her every post, laced with profanity and dripping with outrage.

I’ve dealt with my fair share of online crises and firestorms on behalf of clients, so this got me thinking, what went wrong? (Apart from her not listening to her team in the first place, of course.)

The CEO took anonymous criticism personally. Faceless keyboard warriors love to push buttons to get a reaction, so the more personal and profane their comment, the better. They are called trolls for a reason. Hidden behind the anonymity of a username, they attacked the CEO’s morals, ethics, and worth as a human being. When attacked this way, the reaction of any normal person is not just psychological, it’s physical: racing heartbeat, shallow breaths, clenched fists, and anger, so much anger. Acting on that emotional poison, was her first misstep.

The CEO underestimated her critics. She attempted to explain and clarify, stating her version of the story. Problem was, she wasn’t telling the whole truth. 95% true, but still not the whole truth. The 5% was confidential internal information she omitted, but she underestimated her critics, who were able to gather evidence from other sources, and call her a liar. She thought she was being authentic, but she really wasn’t. She was being 95% authentic, which doesn’t work. 95% truthful is the same as 100% untruthful.

What have we learned?

Social Media requires a thick skin. If you operate a public-facing business nowadays, social media is likely a part of your marketing toolbox.  Yet we often forget that social media is fundamentally personal, so where that crosses with business interests can often create conflict. The most effective attacks are personal attacks, because any Internet user knows how easy it is for a faceless corporation to ignore you. Learning how not to react emotionally is very important. When I worked in the restaurant business many years ago, we taught frontline staff to deal with belligerent customers by imagining they are attacking their uniform, not them. We taught them to visualize the customer scolding an empty uniform on a hanger, looking ridiculous. This hits home the point that they are not being personally attacked; they are being attacked for their job. This helps them compartmentalize, and not react emotionally. Likewise, when attacked personally online, we must respond on behalf of the brand, not ourselves.

Authenticity requires absolute honesty. If you cannot share part of the facts, you need to be proactively upfront about which part you cannot share, and why. Transparency means transparency, not translucency. The Internet will always find a way to uncover evasion and lies by omission. By being not completely honest, you are already not authentic. Likewise, if you cannot feel the feelings you think you ought to feel, don’t fake it.

Authenticity is binary, either you are, or you are not. You can’t fake it.

 

P.S. Some details above were modified to protect the innocent.