Reputation, Beyond Authenticity

by Mignon van Halderen on February 1, 2009

mignon van halderen reputation expert We’re delighted to feature a guest post from Mignon van Halderen, an expert on Organizational Reputation Management. Mignon is Assistant Professor at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Erasmus University. At RSM, Mignon works in the Corporate Communication Centre where she combines teaching and applied research projects within the fields of Reputation Management and Corporate Communication.

We talk a lot about authenticity.

I overheard a conversation between two communication experts during a diner en pensant. One said to the other: Authenticity is one of the most important things in our field. The other firmly agreed, taking a sip of his wine and leaning back in his chair. I waited for his reply, but I was disappointed. He added nothing more to the conversation.

Is that it? I thought. Aren’t you going to probe how difficult it is to be authentic? “Or tell us how you think organizations can build authenticity, apart from just saying we try to practice what we preach in everything we do?

“Can’t you give me just one clue why authenticity is important in your specific organizational context and how you cope with it?

The importance of organizational authenticity seems nowadays so much to be taken for granted that it is used unqualifiedly in every piece of communication advice that I find. And that is where I start to worry.

When the principle of authenticity is advocated carelessly, authenticity as a goal for organizations risks becoming generic, hollow and without any meaning at all. I believe that at that point, the principle of authenticity itself starts to become inauthentic.

Because I want to be more thoughtful about the ways we discuss authenticity, I was glad to find this blog. Simply defined, Organizational Authenticity is achieved when organizations align their identity, image and actions. If companies can show that these three fit together in a healthy way, people find them authentic or ‘real’.

So what makes authenticity so powerful? For one reason, if an organization is believed to be authentic, people create more trust and liking toward the company. Moreover, employees find more meaning and confidence in the organization that they work for.

Another reason behind the power of authenticity, I believe, lies in the fact that authentic organizations allow us to recognize and believe their personality. And because we, as humans, are ourselves personalities, we have a strong inherent need to connect with other personalities. Therefore, exemplary authentic companies are often those organizations that succeed in expressing their personality. In doing so, they emotionally appeal to us.

However, creating and maintaining authenticity seems a completely different challenge (or opportunity) for different types of companies. Let’s consider three companies: Jack Cards on the one hand, and Exxon and BP on the other. Each company has a different approach and faces different challenges in creating authenticity.

JC_Kim and Katherine_fun and easy

Jack Cards: An Authentic Organization

Jack Card s is a start-up company of two of my friends in Boston. Their company is (to me) an excellent example of authenticity. The two Australian founders, both experiencing the difficult distance between themselves and their Aussi friends, came up with an idea : to connect personalities with personalities by combining the authenticity of good-old-classic greeting cards with the internet’s potential.

As emphasized by their slogan “Connecting Thoughtfully, Jack Cards helps customers to maintain a personal touch with friends in an easy way. Jack Cards not only reminds its clients of friends & family’s important events, but also makes it easy for their clients to connect with friends and family by sending a classic greeting card. You just sign up on their website (free), add the important events of friends & family (birthdays, graduations, retirement) and choose one of the distinctive design cards that Jack Cards offers. Just before each important date, Jack Cards sends the card to your home address (stamped and ready to mail). The only thing that is left for you is to write a personal note and post it in the nearest post box.

Authentic? Yes, because the service that Jack Cards provides is personal, human & traditional.

But even better, Jack Card s links what it says it values with how it executes its service. Jack Cards is Connecting Thoughtfully with its clients, who then connect thoughtfully with their friends and family. As one client raved:

I’m so excited that you’ve started this service – it’s already saved me tons of time and has ensured that my loved ones get the creative, beautiful cards that they deserve. It’s a perfect blend of technology and personal touch!

Jack cards offers beautiful designs t hat fit a lot of different personal tastes. It is easy to find cards that fit your personality and the personality of the friend getting the card.

So, we could say that authenticity is for Jack Cards an opportunity to create competitive advantage. After all, authenticity is the product that Jack Cards sells. Authenticity is its unique selling point and the two founders clearly know how to keep their authentic selling point….yes, authentic!

But let’s also look at the two other companies, Exxon and BP, whose products seem much less authentic – at least in terms of personality – but from whom we as society still expect authenticity .

Exxon and BP: Authentic? Liked and Trusted?

Exxon  Enough

Exxon has clearly faced a lot of disappointment and anger from different stakeholders. But, oddly enough, its identity (being an oil farmer) has been perfectly aligned with Exxon’s explicit statements of who it is, as well as Exxon’s strong focus on drilling oil instead of developing alternative energy. Indeed, Exxon’s previous CEO has been notorious for his bold honesty about Exxon’s lack of interest in alternative energy. Even the current CEO stresses that Exxon doesn’t see much future in renewable energy sources. No gaps in Exxon’s identity, image and actions here. Pretty authentic, we could say.

Exxon authentic because it is acting on its core belief that investing in alternative energies is not a clever strategy to address global warming.

Yet, aside from satisfying its investors, Exxon’s authentic message has not really paid off in terms leading external stakeholders to like Exxon or to trust Exxon.

Why hasn’t Exxon’s authenticity lead stakeholders to trust or to like the company?

Because Exxon’s stakeholders expect more than just authenticity.

In addition to seeing Exxon be who it says it is, stakeholders also wish to see that Exxon operates in line with societal expectations, such as taking care of global warming by focusing on alternative energies.

BP

BP’s approach to building an authentic reputation has been completely different from that of Exxon. BP was the first company to claim that it linked its identity to society’s growing concerns of global warming. BP introduced the Beyond Petroleum campaign and came a long way with showing that it walked the talk. A brilliant move, I would say. Authentic and responsive to society at the same time! But sadly, BP suffered two crises in 2004, a severe pipeline corrosion in Alaska and a refinery explosion in Texas. BP’s reputation for being concerned about the environment was harmed by both crises, and the authenticity of BP’s reputation was harmed.

  • So, what should companies like BP and Exxon do to create and maintain authentic reputations so that they are not only authentic but also liked and trusted?

  • How can BP and Exxon manage their reputations without losing sight of certain realities, such as the fact that technology is not yet advanced enough for them to provide their stakeholders with alternative energy right away?

{ 1 comment }

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