What happens when business leaders start being real.
In 2023, Americans have never been closer to their influencers — whether they’re Hollywood directors or the head of Twitter.
While America’s uber-elite is still largely inaccessible, the emergence of new modes of communication has allowed U.S. content consumers to get a real sense of where influencers of all kinds stand on issues of the day. Love them or hate them, podcasts like “The Joe Rogan Experience” and Bill Maher’s “Club Random” are tearing down the walls of traditional media, which for so long has inundated people with corporate jargon and PR speak with little substance.
Don’t get me wrong: I run a public relations firm, so I understand the need for tight-lipped corporatism in certain cases. Many of my clients are advised to not overshare, since what they say or write can be sensitive and wrongly interpreted. Misspeaking or miswriting can have a real, adverse bottom-line impact, as Twitter CEO Elon Musk has so often found.
Musk is an interesting case study though. While he has certainly made mistakes as head of Twitter, his obsession with Twitter polls has empowered consumers and revolutionized American democracy in many ways.
Last month, Musk polled Twitter users on whether he should step down as CEO, with most voters responding “yes.” Now, Musk’s team is actively searching for a new CEO.
The line from consumer preference to company policy has been clearly drawn, and that’s exciting. It’s a new day for customer engagement: Twitter users actually feel like they have seats at the proverbial table. Whether they agree or disagree with Musk’s politics, most people generally know what he believes because he is out there.
In the same vein, podcast listeners can get a better idea of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s beliefs after a three-hour Rogan interview than a scripted appearance on cable news. Quentin Tarantino fans gain more access to the director when he sits down for a drink with Maher and shares hot-button movie takes that way than when he agrees to a formal sit-down interview on “Real Time.”
The former spans nearly two hours, opening the door for Tarantino to think, stutter, mess up, discuss, and debate unfiltered — in other words, be a human being. His guard is down. The latter setting, on the other hand, is buttoned-up and cagier as a result.
“Real Time” interviews still add value, but more inauthentically. Sometimes, you just want to see how your favorite celebrity acts with a whiskey in hand.
Those who crave authenticity are the real winners of today’s content revolution. Poll after poll after poll shows that authentic content is the most compelling in terms of eliciting trust. People are more likely to know, like, and trust content that is unvarnished — because we are all unvarnished, after all. I may disagree with Zuckerberg on artificial intelligence after a half-day interview (and I do), but he feels more relatable regardless.
Therein lies a lesson for today’s communicators. In the age of alternative content, there are simply too many avenues to access authenticity for public-facing influencers to recycle the same old talking points and expect to win the trust of U.S. consumers. People are increasingly expecting the likes of Musk and Zuckerberg — two experts on 21st-century technology — to communicate their respective business philosophies in 21st-century ways. More and more, consumers are looking for influential directors like Tarantino to actually speak their minds rather than play it “safe.”
In that sense, election officials have a lot of catching up to do. When Sen. Ted Cruz appears on “The Ben Shapiro Show” or Barack Obama joins “Pod Save America,” public discourse wins. Public education wins, as does the democratic exchange of ideas. But, too often, political figures who influence public policy in Washington, D.C. hide behind the safety of scripted forms of communication, claiming to “represent the people” but not really showing they care.
There are caveats, of course. A Fortune 500 CEO dealing with a legal issue shouldn’t spit out a soliloquy on “The Joe Rogan Experience.” He or she must be cautious and prudent for the sake of the stakeholders involved, taking their lawyer’s guidance to heart. Similarly, I would advise FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried to be very, very careful about what he says or writes, and to whom.
But, to the extent possible, public influencers should respond to and leverage public sentiment to their advantage. The American people seek and receive authenticity now more than ever before, and the shrewdest spokespeople will give it to them.
Human beings will rule the day. PR robots will rue it.
Luka Ladan, APR, serves as president and CEO of Zenica Public Relations in New York City.
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