The need for credible communicators

By James Boyd-Wallis, director, Fourteen Forty

Individual and group staff portraits at Fourteen Forty in Whitehall Gardens and in their offices at 8 Northumberland Avenue, 18th November 2017

Photography by Fergus Burnett

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In the age of post-truth and a lack of trust in business and the media, consumers and clients want companies and their leaders to be genuine or “authentic”.

Brands and CEOs that seem real are often better at building connections and engagement.  They see a benefit on the bottom line.

But what is it to be authentic? And how can leaders and businesses achieve it?

 First, what is it?

In their own way, Nigel Farage, Michael O’Leary and Jeremy Corbyn are all authentic.

When many business leaders and politicians are at best overly cautious or at worst deliberately dishonest, these men say what they think and mean what they say.

While some people may not like or agree with them, others value their honesty.

Compared to the beige leader or brand, they stand out because they seem real.

But appearing genuine isn’t just simply about being true to what you believe.  It is not just about saying what you think no matter the consequences.

Instead, it must be a desirable quality.

For leaders or brands, authentic communication means better connecting your personality with your role or organisation.

It means being free to talk how you would to your friends or peers but being aware enough to know when to self-regulate.

What’s led to the rise of authentic communicators?

There are four trends that have contributed to the rise in authentic communicators.

One, the decline in trust.  For the last 15 years, we’ve experienced a succession of scandals that have eroded trust in public and private organisations.

From the financial crash to MPs expenses and phone hacking, our faith in business, politics and the media has been undermined.

Two, consumers have more power than before.  They are better informed and have easy access to a vast range of insight and opinion.

Consumers feel they are the experts and will question businesses, brands and leaders as a result.

If businesses or their leaders say or do something their consumers don’t agree with, they may be publicly challenged or shamed.

Three, consumer expectations are higher than ever.  No longer is it enough for a business or brand to make a good product.  They need a purpose too.  Consumers have come to expect more.

Four, technology has led to new opportunities and more threats.  Social media makes it easier for consumers to challenge brands direct.

It also enables information – accurate or fake – to spread quickly.  Everyone is a publisher.  This creates the need for real-time reaction over a planned response.

How to do leaders and businesses become more authentic?

Being authentic shouldn’t be difficult, but it can be.  So, what do businesses and their leaders need to do?

First, you must have a clear and consistent story and message that takes account of all of your audiences.

Thanks to the accessibility of information, consumers, media, employees and regulators all absorb the same messages about you or your business.  Whether you like it or not.

You need one story and you need to repeat it time and again.

Second, it is not just what you say but how you say it.

This is the creative element of communications and involves an understanding of the different channels available.

For instance, new research from Kantar, the insight agency, shows that 70% of consumers using review sites trust what they read about a brand.  Some 53% believe what they read in the printed press.  Only 33% trust what they see in advertising.

Many consumers are more likely to trust a video of a business leader than something they see in print.

Last, leaders and businesses need to speak in the language that people use every day.  And they need to say it with confidence.

Some 78% of consumers trust what their family and friends tell them, according to the Kantar research.

Leaders and businesses need to avoid jargon and corporate guff.

Elon Musk, for instance, once claimed to be “laser-focused on achieving full self-driving capability on one integrated platform with an order of magnitude greater safety than the average manually driven car”.

What he meant was that Tesla cars must stop crashing.

We’re moving into a tougher time for leaders and businesses.  They face more threats and greater scrutiny.

With the right approach, they also have more opportunity to communicate authentically.

In doing so they can better engage with their audiences and improve the bottom line.

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