Whose words are these? Authenticity in online public relations

by Steve Seager on July 6, 2009

Beth Harte from marketing profs – a pretty good ‘social’ marketing and communications resource – has kicked off a lively discussion about whether public relations has ever been ‘authentic.’

As she says, by authentic, she means: not false or copied, but genuine and real. She refers to the fact that many articles, presentations, blogs, or twitter posts are not written by the people that claim to publish them, but written by pr agencies.

‘Authenticity’ is a particularly relevant issue in social media. Many social media ‘experts’ claim it’s the biggest factor for businesses engaging with consumers in social media. I have also encountered many a client that worries about handing over responsibility for social media communications to online public relations practitioners.

These fears are based on, as she puts it: “I don’t know about you, but these days when I read an article, a tweet, or a blog post I want to know that the person’s name on the article is the person who actually wrote it.”

Well, I would disagree. Authenticity is not about authorship, it is about intent and purpose. Would you be disappointed to know that Mr. Kipling doesn’t actually make his own exceedingly good cakes? And it is not him on Facebook? Are Obama’s words less authentic because the rather brilliant Jon Favreau wrote them?

Speeches are a perfect example. Does ghost writing make a speech less authentic? I have written speeches both for business leaders and diplomats. When I have done my job well, they have expressed that I help them articulate their ‘story’ better than they could have done alone. Does this make their speeches less authentic? I would argue it makes them more authentic.

The key is in teamwork between the client and the pr. To help any client better articulate themselves, any good pr must do the basics:

  1. Research and understand what makes the brand or person tick
  2. Work closely with the client to clarify the intent and purpose
  3. Ensure the story is targeted and relevant to the audience
  4. Adopt the personal or brand tone and style of the client

If your pr has done these basics, they can help you better articulate your value to those you address. If this content results in trust from those who read that content, then your pr has done his job. You are authentic. Even in social media.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes the name on by-line should be the writer. If you are a CEO writing your blog, then I wouldn’t advocate ghost writing. But that’s where a good pr slips into editor mode. An editor can help you hone and sharpen your message so it sticks. So it is authentic. Again, it takes teamwork.

‘Trust’ not ‘authenticity’ is the key to creating great stories in social media. I certainly wouldn’t trust the fact that everyone is who they say they are in social media. But when I read consistently relevant, meaningful and valuable content from someone, I don’t care who wrote or edited the actual words. I trust them. Don’t you?

Authenticity in online public relations

  • http://www.marketingprofs.com Beth Harte

    Steve, first, thanks for saying that I am a “pretty good ‘social’ marketing and communications resource.” I appreciate it. (Not sure why social is in quotes though…)
    Second, those words are not mine, but the dictionary’s and I can’t take credit for them. (Authentic = not false or copied, but genuine and real.)
    Third, I never referred to (or said) “…the fact that many articles, presentations, blogs, or twitter posts are not written by the people that claim to publish them, but written by pr agencies.” I gave a specific example of a PR team writing a byline article and being the voice for the person who’s name is slapped on the byline. (I think you just ghostwrote for me…)
    Phew! Glad that I could clear up any discrepancies here.
    As for speeches, most people know that any president or CEO — government or organizational — usually do not write their own words. But when a speech is given and the words pass the lips of the speaker they do become the words of the speaker, they ARE ethically held responsible for those words. Don’t believe me? Check out Richard Johannesen’s book “Ethics in Human Communication or just watch the news and you’ll hear a lot of “Obama said/promised, etc.” He is indeed being held accountable and it would be unethical for him to say “I didn’t know what I was saying…blame my speechwriter.”
    When it comes to PR 2.0 the constituents expand well beyond the media (and bloggers) to employees, investors, lobbyists, fans, friends, followers, folks just passing by, etc. and they known one-way push of PR messages. Anything a PR agency writes for a company is typically limited to messaging because they will never be close enough to be inside the heads of the employees of that company…nor will they (depending on the product or service) have the deep experience necessary to have real conversations with constituents. I don’t know about you, but as a PR professional, I think it’s a bit unethical, shady, misleading to talk to a constituency as if we were the VP of Marketing or CTO or HR manager when, clearly, we are not. I mean what would happen if we did that and then we met folks offline? Clearly they could tell the difference in tone, etc.
    As for social media and authenticity, the key here is that people will know when someone isn’t being authentic. Their tone, content and style will shift. Authenticity breeds trust, not the other way around. Not being authentic in social media is just asking for a ticking time bomb to go off…there are too many examples where situations have gone awry (Walmart is probably the best known).
    Thanks for keeping the conversation going Steve!
    Beth Harte
    Community Manager, MarketingProfs
    @bethharte

  • Steve Seager

    Hi Beth,
    I really appreciate you taking the time to chat back. As I mentioned on your own blog, i always enjoy reading your posts – loads of great and challenging thoughts!
    The only reason why social is in quotes is because I’m not quite sure whether you speak solely from a ‘social’ perspective or not. I tend to use those same quotes in ‘social’ quote often. Check my last post on inbound marketing.
    If you were referring to just a by-lined article, then my apologies. I misinterpreted your post, as others may have done judging by the responses. Then again, I don’t think you would have mentioned the guillotine unless you knew you were being provocative ;)
    I 100% agree misrepresentation is an absolute no-no. There’s no question about that. It’s simply unethical. Accountability? I also 100% agree with you.
    As for ‘authentic’, bearing in mind what I just noted about misrepresentation and accountability, I still don’t agree I’m afraid. I would prefer to use the dictionary definitions of: ‘”that can be believed or accepted”, “conforming to fact and therefore worthy of belief”, “conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief”.
    I think any pr manages this, then it’s a job well done!
    Thanks again for taking the time out (I honestly don’t know how you manage it all!)
    Steve

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