I’ve been working in the Communications field since 2009 and I’ve always been interested in how we as human beings communicate in every aspect of our lives. As I’ve said in various musings in blog posts over the years, I think I have a pretty strong bullshit detector, so when it comes to integrity and authenticity in communications, there is a very fine line between aspiration and reality.
So many of the businesses I’ve worked at and with over the years have had a disconnect between what they say, what they do and what they aspire to be seen as, and therein lies many problems. If you can’t effectively communicate what you’re about, is that really what you’re about?
I see a lot of people saying “authenticity is more important than ever” and it’s a bit of a moot point for me. Integrity and authenticity in communications have always, will always and should always be of the utmost importance to brands. It shouldn’t change with the tide or whatever trend is in motion because if it does, by definition, it’s not really authentic.
The problem, I think, is that communications are often the last thing on the list for many businesses.
They set up, they do well for a given amount of time thanks to referrals, then things slow down and they think “OK, time to do some marketing”. It’s an afterthought. Communication needs to be a key consideration at every stage of the business’ journey, from inception. In doing so, it ensures that stakeholders are always asking “why” and challenging themselves and each other, keeping front of mind the mission the business is on.
I’m not trying to generalise here, by the way, and there are many companies doing this right and doing it well, but I usually find that – when a business comes to me asking for help with their Marketing and PR – they’re in this situation. They’re looking at what their competitors are saying and rehashing it somehow with a twist on terminology, but it’s essentially the same and it’s not authentic to them.
Anyone who says it is isn’t telling the whole truth, because every business and every business owner starts because they want to do something different to their competitors. Their MO is to not do the same thing, but without a focus on communications, they end up down that road.
Authenticity in communications: how to stop making the same mistakes?
First of all, it’s never too late to sort this stuff out. Businesses go through constant change and – whilst it’s ideal to have a plan and mission set out from the start – it’s always doable at any stage.
Big change factors, like a pandemic, for example, might mean a change of approach is forced on the business, in which case a refocus on the communications approach is essential. Side note: we’ve written about this from an SEO perspective in this post, which you might find interesting.
Here are a few pointers (short of contacting us for help, of course!) that can help you define what your messaging should be and whether that’s really authentic to your business and its mission:
Outline your mission
Whether you’ve been in business for 5 minutes or 5 years, it’s essential to have a mission. We often run workshops to help our clients deep-dive into this stuff, but there are ways to get started on a simpler level if you’re tight on time or budget.
Think about what you’re offering and why. Think about how it differs from your competitors’ offering and why. What’s the commitment you make to your customers or clients when they buy from you or work with you?
When completing this exercise, put whatever marketing messaging you’ve been putting out there to the back of your mind. Ditch any commonly-used jargon and filler words – we’re not interested in “we’re innovative” as a reason for existing, you’ve got to go a few levels deeper to get to the crux of why you bother getting out of bed every morning to work and do whatever it is you’re doing.
If in doubt, think about why you even started a business in the first place. That spark can be a priceless indicator of your real mission and a surefire way to unpick the BS you might be inclined to say, which clouds authentic communications.
Often, I find that business owners see their business as a totally separate entity with its own personality, which can, in turn, cause a whole load of headaches when trying to come up with authentic communications. Instead of thinking “what would the business say?” think “what would I say?” because let’s face it when it comes to interacting with clients and customers, you’re the one actually doing it!
Think this doesn’t apply to big businesses? I think it does. Take Facebook, as an example. As a business, there’s little authenticity and integrity because Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t appear to possess any, either.
Ooh, shots fired.
Do some research
First of all, I recommend speaking to a range of customers/clients via an anonymous survey or getting a third-party to take calls with them and ask some questions about their experience in dealing with you, which might include:
- How’s the customer/client onboarding?
- How does the product/service the business provides impact your life?
- Do they stick to promises made on their website or in marketing collateral/proposals?
- Why did they choose your business over a competitor?
- What one area would they like you to improve upon?
- Would they confidently refer you to a peer/friend? Why or why not?
There are many more, but this gives you a strong basis to form a survey and get some real-life answers from the people who buy from you.
Next up, competitors!
Pick 3-4 competitors (2 you’re on par with, 2 aspirational) and assess every public-facing bit of comms available. I’m talking about the website, social media, brochures, video content, case studies, past PR (simply Google their business name then click ‘News’), TrustPilot (if applicable), creds docs and award wins/nominations.
Whatever you can find, split the load between yourself and your team and uncover the key messages, what you like about it, what you don’t like, and crucially: HOW YOU DIFFER.
It’s actually quite funny, but whenever I ask a prospective client to outline their current messaging/positioning “in a nutshell”, they end up spouting a whole lot of jargon and superlatives at me. It’s no wonder they struggle with authenticity in communications. Somewhere along the line, we all started talking in circles, throwing in words like “performance” and “quality” and “innovation” (there are so many more) when describing a simple product or service.
Stop doing it. Stop right now!
Even guidelines for creating positioning statements are a bit jargon-filled, so again, I recommend stripping things back and focusing on what’s clear and true:
- Who you are
- What you offer
- Who you help
- What it the product/service does
- Why you offer it
From here, you have principles to work from that every piece of communication can be measured against. Websites are particularly prolific when it comes to fluff and jargon, so keep referring to your positioning indicators when producing web copy or anything on the web.
These principles will also help you when faced with decision-making for outbound campaigns or PR – you can ask yourself “is this genuinely going to help us put our message out there to the right people?” and be a bit more selective if the answer happens to be no.
If you’re reading this and thinking I’m teaching you how to suck eggs, this article isn’t for you. You’ve obviously got a handle on all this stuff and that’s great. Perhaps you’re in need of more strategic advice and implementation and in which case, of course, we can help with that. On the other hand, if you’re reading this thinking you’ve got a lot of work to do, then, I guess, you’ve got a lot of work to do!
But don’t battle on alone if it feels out of your depth – unpacking this stuff is essential for authenticity in communications going forward and it can be easy to throw in the towel if it feels overwhelming, so get expert help if you need it.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of advice for nailing authenticity in communications. Brands evolve over time and it’s always worth revisiting mission, values and messaging at regular intervals, but it’s a good place to start and will help when striving for authentic communications.