While preparing for an upcoming webinar on crisis communications, my research revealed a staggering number of companies and organizations embroiled in serious reputational disasters. Almost daily, some company or leader is offending, lying, mistreating, or misusing resources.  The COVID-19 pandemic and the uprisings around racial equity and justice have put everyone and everything under a new microscope. We are living in a shifting normal, where what we say on Monday may appear tone-deaf on Friday.

How does one navigate this landscape? You must be clear about who you are and what you stand for. This isn’t about beautiful statements of your values. Instead, it’s about your actions.  Do you conduct business in an ethical and fair manner?  Are you committed to creating diverse and inclusive organizations? How do you treat and serve your customers and clients? How are you treating your employees? And how do you hold yourself accountable to your principles and values, even when it is uncomfortable and maybe even unprofitable.

Authenticity is the New Cool

There is a drive toward being authentic. In fact, authenticity is the new cool. In a world filled with lies, half-truths, and dishonesty, companies and individuals who appear to speak the truth, warts and all, earn our respect, gratitude, and trust. Honesty is refreshing because it seems so rare.

It must be said, though, that you can only be authentic when you are clear about your values. It is as much about what you won’t do as it is about what you will do. Embracing principles and values and truly living and working by them, no matter what makes you authentic.

Authenticity is also about vulnerability. As social scientist Brené Brown notes, “You have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage.” And the courage of conviction is part of being authentic.

Being authentic doesn’t mean giving up privacy or being fully transparent all the time. For example, you don’t have to share the details of your operations. But when something goes wrong, you need own up to it and try to make it right. And you do have to decide what it means to be a good corporate citizen. Can you commit to factoring in the “human element” when making business decisions? Are you willing to pull your advertising or support from entities that contradict what you say you stand for? Are you willing to listen to those who may feel aggrieved and consider changes?

The Authenticity Trap

In their efforts to be authentic, many enterprises come off as disingenuous. They try to feign vulnerability or concern. But time and circumstance generally reveal that they really don’t mean it or believe it. Take, for instance, the company that tells you how important you are to them as a customer—playing that message over and over while you are on hold for 30 minutes or longer to resolve a problem. If you check the website, it probably talks about the corporate value of putting the customer first. But they’re not living that value.

In recent weeks, many companies issued statements following the killing of George Floyd. They talked about efforts to be diverse and inclusive. But if pressed, they have no action plan for how they will change. In a time when the Internet—and phone cameras—reveal all, you are better off doing and saying nothing than trying to be pretend to be something you have no intention of being.

Three Questions You Must Ask

Having clarity around your values and the lines you will and will not cross will guide your actions and your words. It will engender trust and loyalty because customers, employees, donors, investors, and other stakeholders know they can depend on you to act in a way that aligns with their values and aspirations. Embracing those ambitions and boundaries is what makes you authentic and enhances your value to those who matter most.

Asking yourself and your company leadership the following questions will help you gain the kind of clarity that will enhance authenticity.

  • What do you hold sacred in your company or organization that you won’t ever compromise, even if it means digging into the bottom line, or losing the client or the job?
  • What are the fundamental beliefs on which your company or organization is built?
  • In what situations would you bend or adapt your belief/value statements and why?