Authenticity versus post-truth: what business leaders need to know

In the post-truth world, where society and social media in particular are awash with fake news, false rumours and out-of-context conversations, public opinion is increasingly shaped more by emotion and personal belief than objective fact. So how worried should brands and businesses be about the influence of this trend on their industries and operations? And what role does authenticity play in mitigating and managing both the threat and the fallout?

Colleagues conversing in office

With our lives subject to a heady mix of opportunities, agendas and always-on technology, authenticity is increasingly vital to brands who rely upon the trust it can engender to forge connections, and foster productive and profitable relationships with consumers, customers and clients. But, of course, the fact is that anyone, anywhere, can say whatever they want to about who you are and what you do – regardless if it’s 100 per cent fact-less or fabricated – directly to a mass global audience online.

Social media is growing as a primary news source and Australians are reportedly amongst the world's most likely to share questionable articles online, suggesting our organisations need to be proactive in the face of post-truth challenges. We spoke to Chief Sustainability Officer, Jaana Quaintance-James, for the Global Fashion Group, parent company of leading ANZ fashion and sports e-tailer THE ICONIC, to gain some insight into how they’re working to harness authenticity and hamper those who might see it compromised.

Understand your truth as a business and act accordingly

For business leaders, the ability to align with and articulate the truth of their organisation amongst all levels of personnel is essential to curating an authentic company culture. It prevents knowledge gaps forming, which can otherwise provide an environment where internal miscommunication can quickly become external misinformation.

Quaintance-James asserts that efforts to integrate corporate identity with culture and communications can’t be passive if they are to promote positive realities.

“It’s crucial that a business conducts itself in close alignment with the values of its customers, employees and partners, to actively demonstrate its commitment and responsibility to those who play a part in its success.

Embedding these priority values into everything an organisation does, from internal team processes to external marketing pushes, helps ensure it not only ‘talks the talk’, but more importantly ‘walks the talk’. Inconsistency between what you ‘say’ you stand for, and what you ‘do’, can cause an obvious disconnect where customers and followers are likely to disengage, or worse, feel inclined to share negative sentiment.

For example, we’re working to support and promote inclusion, diversity and body-positivity in Australian and New Zealand fashion, and have found that integrating it into as many facets of our business as possible has helped make it pervasive across our company culture. This includes the models we feature physically and digitally, and the internal team we continue to build, which now features over 40 nationalities (and perspectives).”

Champion transparency and progress, not perfection

With more access to information, connection and choice than ever before, the rise of conscious consumerism has grown exponentially over the past decade. Accordingly, transparency has become a potent weapon against mistruth in today’s markets. It helps reduce discrepancies between what a business claims to value and their day-to-day actions, stifling opportunities for trolls, profiteers or even just misguided members of the general public to prey upon them.

As Quaintance-James sees it, openness in dealings and decisions best serves the goal of authenticity when it is widely adopted within a business.

“There will always be more that can be done to meet or exceed targets, so rather than over-promising on what can be achieved, consistently driving and promoting quantifiable positive outcomes should be the focus. By providing timely and honest updates on how a company is doing, those who trust it can be offered clarity around the commitments made in a manner which holds business leaders accountable for their decisions. One of our mantras is ‘progress, over perfection’, which we’ve found can validate many of our initiatives both external and internal.

With an area such as sustainability, which is increasingly influential on consumer behaviour and with that the actions of those vying for their patronage, we’ve managed to achieve customer-facing outcomes such as introducing an onsite filter that encourages conscious shopping by enabling users to select items based on their personal sustainability values. But, like more and more organisations, we’re also acutely aware of the need to keep the impact of the various (and less PR’able) ‘back-end’ elements of our operations top of mind, in order to reduce our carbon footprint ongoing.”

Define, measure and reinforce standards for truth

Businesses need to not only find their own voice and learn to express it with integrity, but also to take the time to formally define, measure and reinforce standards for truth, both internally and in their interactions with consumers and third parties. Assessment protocols, best practice benchmarking, and appointment of appropriate personnel to act as guardians of company truth are all useful, especially when grey areas emerge around poor quality information.

Organisations should shape the development of their standards around social media engagement, and the management and mitigation of false stories online, in support of their overarching business vision, says Quaintance-James.

“Although it’s important to encourage followers to be part of brand conversations, it’s also of the utmost importance to ensure brand-affiliated digital platforms for this dialogue and exchange are safe, inclusive, up-to-date and accurate when it comes to information. Yes, businesses and their workforces should be instigating thoughtful discussion and reinforcing their commitment to the issues they value, but this demands a merger of human insights and technical understanding in the form of community standards, participant guidelines and proactive monitoring, which must all be maintained to foster fairness and respect.

In terms of challenging customer questions and potential misinformation, we employ a four-step approach which involves media monitoring of brand mentions, context and impact assessment of negative comments or false stories, stakeholder engagement, and implementation of a response which will aim to protect brand perception whilst better informing consumers in the process.”

In practice, acting authentically and sharing honestly is one thing, ensuring it delivers on driving post-truth trust is another. This is where integration of the skills to explain ‘why’ a company does what it does with the tactics and techniques to protect the integrity of those messages become a key concern for managers and their teams.

Knowing how to lead effective communication within and on behalf of an organisation is central to more and more modern careers, which is why the University of Melbourne have created a Microcredential designed to facilitate exactly that. Part of the Managing Teams suite of credentials, the course offers quality insight and expert instruction in a bite-sized format perfect for upskilling professionals – learn more here.

With special thanks to:

  • Chief Sustainability Officer, Jaana Quaintance-James, Global Fashion Group (parent company of THE ICONIC)