This recent post in Huffington Post on Hillary Clinton’s authenticity (or lack thereof) got me thinking about the evolution of authenticity as a paragon of communication. In recent years, the immediacy and transparency of social media has increased the premium on authenticity – being true to your identity or person and avoiding artifice, hype or self-serving promotion. Over the years I have worked with numerous leaders and politicians striving to identify and promote their identity and genuine brand attributes – to be authentic. The premise is that an informed and empowered consumer (or voter) will not accept a disingenuous or fabricated persona, or marketing message. I still believe that striving for an honest, credible portrayal of oneself (or a company or culture) is critical, but is it enough? I’ve concluded that being authentic, in of itself, is not enough to foster lasting relationships with your audience(s).
Let’s take Donald Trump as a prominent example. Trump is unapologetic about being himself – for better or for worse, whether he contravenes political correctness or not. He ignores political conventions and etiquette, he blusters (apparently without script) about any topic, and he liberally throws around vitriolic insults at anyone who dares criticize him or his persona. Throughout this process, Trump seems to relish in being Donald Trump – or the persona he has crafted and become in the public consciousness.
At least for now, Trump’s recipe seems to be working. In fact, Trump’s very popularity seems largely based on his unscripted, honest and blunt commentaries and policy positions – which often contravene GOP orthodoxy. He is the consummate outsider (at least in political terms) and the opposite of the typical poll-driven, predictable and deliberate candidate. Other candidates seem to be either trying to ignore him – with varying degrees of success – or to emulate his dogmatic, no-holds-barred style. (On the democratic side, one could argue Bernie Sanders is benefiting from a similar wave of support for his direct style – albeit a more polite and humble version. Other pundits suggest Joe Biden, who has not declared his candidacy, would have the most equity on the authenticity meter.)
While Trump has garnered the headlines and the support, the cautious, reactive campaigns of other GOP candidates have generated more credibility problems than excitement with the public. Politicians like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, along with Hillary, are the anti-thesis of Trump. In fact, all three of these candidates have suffered due to their lack of candor, sincerity and accessibility on contentious issues. Based on polls I’ve seen, most Americans seem to question the authenticity – or trustworthiness – of these candidates. Their outreach seems designed not to share candid personal views or insights, but to sell a proactive electoral platform and carefully crafted persona. These candidates may at their core have real beliefs and policy ideas, but we’d be hard pressed to judge which ones are entrenched and which are promoted for political expediency or to avoid controversy. In other words, they are having difficulty making the case they are authentic.
But there is another side to Trump’s transparent “deal with it” persona. Yes, he certainly appears to be a distinctive personality and has carved out his own unique style. He is, in short, authentic and entirely original. But what of the view that he is also a bigot and misogynist? Or woefully ignorant of political minutiae and world affairs? Or laughably egotistical, thin-skinned and petty? All of the those criticisms have some strong proof-points and cogent advocates. In other words, he may be real, but is he a positive, effective candidate to be president of the country or is he a self-promoting clown?
I would posit that by itself authenticity isn’t enough if the person or brand being featured doesn’t align with the values, beliefs and aspirations of his/her supporters (or consumers.) In other words, you also have to be relevant, credible and yes, even likeable. What is the true value in an authentic narcissist or bully?
I would also argue that beyond an authentic personality, there needs to be authenticity for the actual ideas being promoted by candidates like Trump. Indeed, there is likely value in having passionate, consistent and convincing ideas (and content) rather than chasing polls or simply tossing out bumper-sticker slogans with little intellectual or empirical heft.
The focus on authenticity has also obscured the reality that politicians (and companies) need to do more than talk about themselves – they have to listen. And respond. And presumably also accept the ideas and criticisms of their followers or consumers. One could argue the implicit contract with fans or consumers – on social platforms but also through traditional media channels and political settings – is that the discussion should be civilized, with a measure of decorum, fairness and balance – like any reasonable conversation. That’s the basis of code of conduct for public communication in many organizations, and what keeps discourse on the web from becoming a troll free-for-all.
I’m not certain Trump is willing or able to show this level of civility, humility and empathy. Being elected, or selling a product, is not a one-way conversation or license to be obnoxious under the guise of being honest and unfiltered. Even if you are an authentic original. For these reasons I think Trump’s wave of popularity is not sustainable. Will he actually be the GOP presidential candidate? The jury is out, but my guess would be no.