“Authenticity” is a huge buzzword these days, mostly amongst the so-called social media evangelists, who promise to help companies manage their brand identities on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re lucky, you may even get the chance to see one of these evangelists speak, and they’ll tell you how important social media is in building your brand.
First, I want to dispense quickly with that claim: You don’t need social media to build your brand. And before any company throws its eggs into that basket, it must consider that nearly every dominant brand in the world was built before today’s social media was conceived. Twitter and Facebook can be tools to communicate and converse with the public. Sure, they can help your brand. But you don’t need to pay a social media expert to teach you how to do it or, God forbid, to do it for you.
I don’t use Twitter to talk about what I had for lunch. Nor am I necessarily trying to build a brand. Primarily, I use Twitter as a news feed, and though I follow acquaintances, I most often follow news organizations and thought leaders, so I can get headlines and ideas. I can keep up with trends and innovations. My own Twitter posts are often retweets of things I find interesting, links to things I’ve stumbled on, and the occasional reply to something interesting I’ve read.
Do you know what that is? Authenticity.
Let’s get one thing straight: Authenticity isn’t pretending to be the real thing; it is the real thing. So when the social media moguls tell you how to be authentic or how to create an authentic voice for your brand, understand from the get-go that the very act of trying to be authentic ruins authenticity. No question about that at all.
Is authenticity a good thing? Let me give you a couple of examples, because the answer isn’t all that simple.
This week I stopped following two of the most annoying Twitterers I’ve ever willingly followed: Jennifer Bull and Lisa Barone. Bull started following me, so I checked out her stream. She seemed to have some interesting posts, so I followed back. In the ensuing days, I noticed my home page filling up with Bull’s posts. I clicked through a few of them, and found they all went to her blog. And several times, she posted links to the same blog post, using different words to draw attention. And several times a day she’d send out links to old posts on her blog. Clearly, Jennifer Bull is not providing an authentic experience. She’s merely stuffing Twitter with self-promotion. Sorry. You’re unfollowed.
I don’t remember how I found Lisa Barone. But she bills herself as “Co-Founder (sic) and Chief Branding Officer (sic) of Outspoken Media, Inc. Lisa has been involved in the SEO community since 2006 and is widely known for her honest industry observations, her inability to not say exactly what she’s thinking, and her excessive on-the-clock Twittering…”
She comes from nearby Troy, NY, so I thought maybe she knew what she was talking about. Turns out, what I found was a stream of curse words and inappropriate, juvenile commentary. Like these gems:
“Dear liver, I am so incredibly sorry. I promise, nothing but water once I return. Assuming, we’re still alive. Love, Lisa #ireland“
This is a business person? Someone who claims she “saves brands?” From her Twitter feed, I wonder what exactly I’m supposed to think about her brand. Perhaps that she’s drunken, prone to violence, condescending and intolerant of “mommybloggers?”
Clearly, Lisa Barone is an example of taking authenticity too far. If there’s an upside to what she posts, it’s this: I will never hire her to do anything. Ever. If she can’t manage her own identity online, I will never trust her to manage mine.
So the straight answer is this: If you’re faking it on social media, people will know. Say what you think, but don’t forget that showing disrespect and offering too much information isn’t good for anyone. If your company wants to Twitter, be sure that the person tweeting for you is responsible, cordial, respectful and stays on message. It’s nice to give shoutouts to those who mention your brand. It’s even better when there’s a personality behind the whole endeavor (see @comcastbonnie), but if the person doing the tweeting is abrasive, unpleasant and unprofessional, the last thing in the world you want is “authenticity.”
UPDATE: I love when people say I’m wrong, and then prove me so very right. Lisa Barone was kind and measured enough to respond to my post below, and I truly appreciate that. Her business partner, Rae Hoffman, on the other hand, got a tad angry. From her Twitter feed:
@LisaBarone fuck em… and he’s wrong – it’s not that he’d never hire US. It’s that WE would never work with HIM
@sugarrae He has every right to hold that opinion. I just don’t agree. Hopefully he’ll approve my comment.
@LisaBarone oh, he does… and I have every right to think he is a superficial douche because of it
@sugarrae you’re such a bully. :p
@LisaBarone I’m not a bully babe, I’m a realist and I just don’t give a fuck… he can chase <shiny object> the pretty flags
The thing I absolutely love about Rae’s posts is not the juvenile tough-guy act, but the assertion that her company wouldn’t work with me, if I were willing to pay. The fact is that I stated quite clearly above that they will never get a chance to turn down my business because I won’t offer it to them.
I want to be absolutely fair to Lisa Barone here: The above posts were between Rae to Lisa in Twitter conversation. Lisa’s responses were quite tame and measured. She truly handled my criticism the way a professional would. I can only thank Rae for her “authenticity.”
My point stands.
Back in May, we had a miracle in Syracuse. In a fairly distitute section of town, business owners and passersby found money in the street. Lots of it. Police say about $328,000 stuffed into 14 plastic bags littered Wolf and North Salina streets.
Folks who worked in the shops, store patrons and others found the money — which they learned spilled from an armored truck with a broken door — and all had an important decision to make. What would you do with that money?
Most of them gathered it up and called the police. It was returned to the Brinks operation on Lodi Street, where it was headed. All except for the 10 grand Peter Eppolito picked up and brought home with him.
Eppolito didn’t go out partying. He paid some bills. He gave $1,000 to a friend who needed it. He bought himself a decent pair of sneakers. And then he was arrested.
Eppolito is charged with grand larceny because, police say, the money he picked up off the street didn’t belong to him. Now he’s lost his job, and has borrowed to pay back what he found.
And let’s make that distinction now: Despite what the police say, Eppolito didn’t steal the money. He found it in the street. He didn’t hold up the armored car. He didn’t plot or plan a heist. He found money. He took it home.
If that’s the law, so be it. If the state believes it’s our responsibility to find the “owner” every time we find a dollar, a quarter or a penny on the sidewalk, who am I to argue? But let’s face it, none of us do that. And there’s not a cop in this great state who’d slap cuffs on you for pocketing a five you found on a park bench. Or a ten you found in a pair of jeans you bought at the thrift store. Or the $50 stuffed inside a figurine you bought at a yard sale. And what about the philanthropists who specifically leave $100 bills in the streets or public bathrooms in the hopes they’ll go to someone who needs them?
What’s disgusting about this case is the fact that the state can’t seem to make its mind up. Last night I saw a television commercial for the New York Lottery, in which money was left around on the streets, and hidden cameras filmed the lengths folks go to to climb through fountains or scale walls to grab a $10 bill. Even worse, they rigged an ATM machine to spew out bills, and filmed people scrambling to pick up the money. Aren’t all of those people criminals?
On one hand we have a state that has already taken a man’s livelihood and is threatening to take his freedom. On the other, the same state uses a very similar set of circumstances to actively promote its lottery system — the happy coincidence of found money…
And isn’t that really what happened to Peter Eppolito? Didn’t he finally have the little miracle each of us hopes for just once in our lives?
The only people to blame for the “lost” money are the Brinks employees who didn’t make sure the door to the truck was closed. Their jobs should be on the line because they are clearly not capable of handling the delicate and important job of transferring money. Eppolito should be allowed to keep the money. And the state should apologize for being hypocrites.
But you know what? That ain’t gonna happen.
Yesterday, Jeff Jarvis used Twitter to declare the death of the press release. To quote Mr. Jarvis: “How can I tell flacks that I don’t open ANY of their press releases. The press release is dead, folks.”
In subsequent posts, Jarvis says “I love PR people asking what replaces the press release as if it is a needed element in the universe” and “PR is meaningless. Customer service is the real PR.”
All of this goes to show, once again, how deeply engaged Jarvis is in the workings of his own mind, and how out of tune he is with the way the world actually works. I don’t disagree with Jarvis that customer service is PR. But there’s a whole lot more to the story.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I’ve worked on both sides of Jarvis’s argument. I’m a former journalist and I now work in public relations, as a consultant and designer.
First of all, public relations is not meaningless. In fact, PR can and should be customer service on a grand scale. The challenge is to do it respectfully and effectively. In my consulting work, the challenge is always to help clients find their unique story–the one worth telling the world about. Despite what Jeff thinks, good customer service is not enough. Consider:
In college, I worked for a new restaurant, owned by a very nice, smart couple. Their plan was to offer a dining experience that would rival the chain eateries on the same strip. The food was remarkable. The service was excellent…these two had 40 years of restaurant experience between them, and challenged the wait staff to exceed expectations. If anyone had an issue with their meal, they’d get a personal visit from the owner, Tom, at their table. And Tom made sure everyone left happy. The food, the service, the atmosphere were all impeccable. And yet the restaurant was out of business in six months.
There was never really enough money to pour into a media blitz. A fairly small radio ad campaign kicked off the grand opening, but we couldn’t compete against TGI Friday’s, Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday’s, or Red Lobsters for television spots. We had satisfied customers who returned week after week. But bringing in new customers proved too difficult and too expensive.
Had I known then what I know now (and had the owners known as well), we could have gotten a boost by contacting news departments as well as advertising departments. We could have asked to be reviewed in the local restaurant guide. And even the story of this experienced couple striking out on their own to start a business would have made good fodder for the business page. Would it have saved the restaurant? I don’t know. But it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.
All organizations need to learn how to effectively and efficiently reach out. And while Jarvis may be annoyed by the press releases he just throws out, many journalists can be grateful for well-written releases — those that are pitches for coverage of an event, a product or more — because a journalist shouldn’t have to dig to find every nugget you read in the paper.
An innovative software release? Shoot me an e-mail. New product launch? Absolutely! New hire? Definitely.
Sound lazy? It can be. But real journalists don’t do what Jarvis accuses them of — which is simply retyping the release (seriously, Jeff, that’s what copy and paste is for!). Real journalists use press releases as jumping-off points, and determine whether there’s a story to be written. Maybe there really is news in the press release. Maybe the release just leads a journalist to a bigger, better story.
Journalists should not have to dig to find positive news. And let’s face it: Bad news rarely comes in press releases. If you force journalists to dig for good news, you will never read any of it. Not ever. We aren’t wired that way. Journalists are programmed to dig for whatever it is you’re hiding. By sending us what they want us to know, companies give us more time to dig around into what they might not want reported.
And what of community announcements? Must a community journalist scour every church, hospital and funeral home to uncover the marriage announcements, birth announcements, obituaries? Should they send Freedom of Information requests to all colleges and universities to determine who graduated? All of these things are handled by press releases. And, I believe, these things are important to communities.
Jeff can declare press releases dead, but he’s got it the wrong way. To the PR world, Jeff Jarvis is worthless. He isn’t going to read your releases because he isn’t reporting on anything but his own thoughts. His goal is not to inform but to opine. And for him, it’s a lot easier to declare PR’s death, post about it on Twitter and grandstand about it than it is to just hit “delete.”
For more on this, see Bing’s blog, which includes a response from Jarvis.