Does A Good Story By Definition Need To Be Authentic?

The rise of the blogosphere has given prominence to the absolute necessity of communicating with authenticity.

The infamous “Cluetrain Manfesto” called out this point long before the blogosphere gained traction:

“Business is being transformed, but not by technology. The Web is simply liberating an atavistic human desire, the longing for connection through talk. That’s the one constant throughout our evolution, from caves to mud huts to open-air bazaars, from city-states to empires, nations, interdependent global powers. We’ve always conversed, connecting to the people of our world in our authentic voices.”

What makes a voice authentic?

I don’t think I’m exactly going out on a limb by saying that it starts by being who you say you are. Conversely, pretending to be someone else in the virtual world is grounds for a public flogging. My favorite “Exhibit A” involved the CEO of Whole Foods posting online comments under the alias “Rahodeb,” trying to drive down the valuation of competitor Wild Oats Market, a toasting still surfacing a year later.

OK, that’s a relatively simple concept.

But how do you grade the authenticity of an individual communicating a story when that story actually comes from someone else?

With the presidential campaign coming down the home stretch, I’ve been thinking about this question.

The candidate deemed “most genuine” by a given voter takes a giant step toward landing the vote. Yet, there’s a cadre of speech writers and political consultants driven by the objective of crafting the words for Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain that will best resonate with the American public.

When Hillary Clinton found her voice after the New Hampshire primary, did she find her voice or the voice of a particular speech writer?

It’s an interesting debate to examine when the quest for “resonance” pushes a candidate out of the authentic quadrant. No doubt those same political consultants have spent millions on focus groups for guidance.

In the business world, the executives who are the strongest communicators are the ones sharing real stories from their personal experiences. They come across as authentic because they are authentic (what a concept).

This doesn’t mean that the PR function has no role in the process.

Executives in the technology industry often come from engineering orientations where science rules the day. PR can play a valuable role in helping the executive sort through his or her perspectives, opinions and stories, identifying the right content for a given situation.

Often, executives and even companies don’t recognize communications “gold.”

I always think back to sourcing sessions I conducted with HP when they were still in the disk drive business and had invented what would at the time be the world’s smallest disk drive called Kitty Hawk. As I was signing out at the end of the day, the product manager mentioned that the engineering team had been sequestered offsite in a portable trailer. 

Eleven engineers essentially living together in a portable trailer for the better part of a year. How could there not be some good stories around such an arrangement? And indeed, this became a sidebar in BusinessWeek.

At a more basic level, there are times when PR adds tremendous value by simply coaching an executive to open up and share his or her personal stories.

Revisiting the wonderful USA Today profile on the Graspr CEO, Theresa Phillips was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me on the phone. She said her natural inclination was to keep the story focused on the company. It turns out that the company’s PR firm, Consort Partners, was instrumental in helping Phillips understand the benefit of opening up and connecting her personal story to Graspr.  

Without this contrast - or perhaps I should say without this “authentic contrast” - it’s fair to say that the story wouldn’t have appeared in USA Today.

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  1. [...] month I addressed whether a good story by definition needs to be authentic, making the observation that you need to be who you say you are (Stephen Hawking I’m not). [...]

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