The Importance of Being Authentic: the changing nature of trust

I was looking forward to attending my first City Women’s Network meeting in London last Tuesday night. The topic for the panel discussion was ‘How to protect, create and maintain your image’; I had been wondering how much it would focus on the impact of new media, and blogging in particular, on personal branding.

What initially struck me about the CWM was the sheer energy in the room, even before the main debate got underway. About a quarter of the delegates were new to the network, the atmosphere warm and welcoming, in sharp contrast to the rather solemn surroundings.

The panel, made up of

contrasted traditional and new media contexts in a lively and engaging way, drawing on their personal experience and including many anecdotes to illustrate their points of view.

And what also intrigued me was the contrast between the way ‘old’ and new media works, with the latter having an unforeseen level of impact on every aspect of PR and personal branding, as well as on society more generally.

* In traditional media (newspapers and mainstream TV) it may take several months or even years to carefully craft the ‘right’ public image. With new media (basically anything delivered using the internet), this might be achieved within days or even hours.

Business people might dismiss this as only relevant to the world of celebrity, but the point is that personal and corporate reputations can be improved or tarnished in just the same amount of time.

In addition, your (or your company’s) public image can even be created or affected without your agreement or knowledge. We were advised by Neville Hobson to google our own names when we got home – whilst we may not be able to change what is out there in the public arena, at least we can be aware of it. Forewarned is forearmed.

It seems that the rewards for getting it right can be enormous, but the risks are equally large.

* The way new media works dictates that authenticity is crucial. When you’re in the public eye (voluntarily or not), if you’re not authentic you’ll be found out and exposed, and probably sooner rather than later. So why is authenticity so important?

* Well, authenticity is linked to trust, and new technology has contributed to a huge change in the nature of trust in society. According to Neville Hobson, we are more likely to trust ‘a person like me’ than our politicians or the media. It seems that we are now prepared to trust people we’ve never met and probably never will, simply because we got talking to them in an internet chat-room, or liked what they had to say on a blog. Therefore, if you want to create a professional image which is trusted and respected, be authentic.

There were several questions to the panel along the lines of “given what we’ve heard about the dangers, should I try to establish a personal brand at all?” Stuart Higgins quoted an example of a very high profile woman whose reputation has been enhanced by the fact that she has resolutely kept quiet at public engagements. It works both ways. The key is to know what you’re going into and to adhere to the simple rules.

And what of the business world? Well, the Edelman Annual Trust Barometer states that

Trust has important bottom-line consequences. In most markets, more than 80% [of respondents] say they would refuse to buy goods or services from a company they do not trust, and more than 70% will criticize them to people they know, with one-third sharing their opinions and experiences of a distrusted company on the Web.

So companies are not immune from the issues surrounding authenticity and trust.

According to Edelman, “To build trust, companies need to localize communications, be transparent, and engage multiple stakeholders continuously as advocates across a broad array of communications channels’

For another perspective on this CWN event, see writer Yang-May Ooi’s blog.

Other reports and surveys about the nature of trust :

Reuters survey

Public trust and confidence in charities – Nov 05

Public Affairs News – Democratisation of Trust

IEEE Communications Society – Survey of Trust in Internet Applications – 2000

Trust Us – Survey of Corporate Sustainability Reporting

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