Is Your Organization Authentic?

There is a lot of emphasis today on being “authentic.” Making Times Magazine’s “Top 10 List of Future Revolutions” several years ago, seeking the authentic has become a part of our daily lives. Organizations of all kinds have found success because their audiences perceive them to be authentic. But what does it really mean to be “authentic?”  And if I am authentic, will it help my organization succeed?

In a recent article, Shen & Kim (2012)1 identify three characteristics associated with perceived authentic organizational behaviour; truthfulness, transparency, and consistency:

  • Truthfulness refers to not telling lies, but also includes the idea of being true to oneself and reflecting that truth.  In other words, an organization must accurately reflect their stated mission, goals, and brand promise.
  • Transparency refers to an organization being willing to accept responsibility for and accept the consequences of its behavior.
  • Consistency is built upon truthfulness and transparency and refers to an organization reflecting these concepts on an ongoing basis to build trust.

Shen and Kim submitted collected questionnaires from 608 university students in the context of university-student relationships and found statistically significant support of the following:

  • An organization that engages in two-way communication with its audiences is more likely to be perceived as authentic.  Two-way communication can be characterized by keeping them informed, asking for feedback, and involving them in the decision-making.
  • However, it is not enough to engage in two-way communication with your audiences. An organization must present itself as authentic in additional ways to build better relationships.
  • If an organization is perceived as authentic, audiences are more likely to feel they have a positive relationship with the organization.
  • These perceptions can affect behaviour.  Shen and Kim found that people who feel they have a positive relationship with an organization will be more likely to forward and share positive messages about the organization and vice versa.

From these results, you can see how being perceived as authentic can help an organization, however, an organization must commit to always being authentic. You don’t have to look far to find examples illustrating the perils of perceived inauthentic behavior.  A recent example is what happened to Kashi, a cereal company owned by Kellogs. In October 2011 the Cornucopia Institute released a report called “Cereal Crimes” which alleged that Kashi uses genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in some of its products. This produced some serious backlash and you can see why when you compare Kashi’s behavior with the three characteristics of an “authentic” organization outlined by Shen and Kim.

First, the report contradicts the Kashi “commitment” producing the perception that the company is not truthful.  Second, although the company responded to the allegations (indicating two-way communication), the response was not seen as the company taking responsibility for its actions. Rather, it was perceived as sidestepping and excuse making and therefore not being transparent.  This resulted in Kashi seeming inconsistent at reflecting its mission and accepting responsibly and therefore cannot be trusted. These perceptions resulted in communicative behaviors as audiences shared negative messages on related news reports, on their website, and through social media.

So, is your organization authentic?  Let me know what you think about “authentic”  organizational behaviour – both the benefits and the perils.

1. Hongmei Shen & Jeong-Nam Kim (2012): The Authentic Enterprise: Another Buzz Word, or a True Driver of Quality Relationships?, Journal of Public Relations Research, 24:4, 371-389.


About Skye Rodgers

Freelance writer and public relations professional.
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