Bill Nichols

16 December 2011

Bill Nichols

One More Time: Authenticity vs Perception – Which Rules in PR?

001-November 2012

For product marketers, the ‘proof of the pudding’ is key. Truth, they assert, will out. Only once can you sell someone a dodgy motor, shoddy clothing or, yes, a bundle of subprime mortgages. Commit to consistent high quality every time everywhere and it will deliver brand loyalty and positive reputation.

“Ah yes, but”, respond the communicators, “perception is king.” They will argue that it’s what people believe that counts. With the right messages, positioning and narrative, blue can be red, up down and hot cold. You can paint Obama as a rabid socialist, Romney as a 21st-century Gradgrind and shove any mediocre also-ran product into the limelight.

Perception vs. reality: it’s one of the great dynamics of public relations. In the early decades of ‘publicist’ PR, hype ruled. Then post-war, information-based PR was widely taught and practised. Subsequently the spin-doctors restored perception to its throne. But here comes authenticity (a.k.a. reality) again. And here’s why – both technically and strategically.

So long as media was limited (remember four terrestrial channels?), easily isolated and individually addressable by PR folk, it was possible technically to manage and control perception. This approach reached its apogee in the highly effective news management of the early Blair years after 1997.

But the social and online wave has swept this era away. True you can spin a wonderful tale and distribute it globally in seconds. But truth, or at least strident alternatives, may be heard (or tweeted!) equally in seconds. Just check out the recent Applebees cataclysm. Even the Chinese who can switch off sites, groups and even whole cities and regions struggle with this.

Ultimately new technologies and techniques may reverse the pendulum. Meantime, PR folks must rely on delivering ‘authenticity’ – that is, the carefully cultivated and sustained presentation and approximation of reality. Granted it will be tempting to go with the wave when confronted with the latest focus group finding, negative blog or C-suite scream.

But constantly changing messages communicate only noise. Whereas, over time, authenticity creates trust, dialogue and opportunity.

Early empiric research suggests that online and social authenticity motivates changes of opinion or new purchase. People know it is raw and subjective but real. Once motivated, and pending a decision, they then migrate to more formal collateral.

Here then is a new communications process to master. Here too, perhaps, is the solution to Facebook’s ‘monetisation’ challenge. Pages of hype and perceptual management don’t win ‘friends’ or justify premium rates. Quality authentic news and engagement should. So perhaps FB should market the ‘PR’ opportunity which it can quantify vs. traffic and ‘friends’?

So here’s to authenticity. Challenging certainly. Intimidating often. But for any self-respecting proposition, it’s surely the right thing to do.

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