Authentic authenticity

Over the last few weeks I’ve kept coming back to the issue of authenticity, as discussed on YouTube and as advocated by Andy Beedle.

Authenticity is my mantra, my corporate compass, but YouTube’s shock-schlock and Beedle’s quest for viral humor seem to me to be cheap substitutes for the real thing. Here’s a year-end reflection on authentic authenticity.

I still subscribe to the “3 gates” view of communication I learned as a kid: “Is it true, necessary, and kind?”

YouTube as an Institutional Platform

It’s almost laughable to look at YouTube through that prism.

The authenticity question deals with “Is it true?” But is anyone on YouTube asking the other 2 questions? Some are; most, it seems to me, are not. It’s a commons, and the least common denominator now defines the YouTube brand.

Is it necessary to see most of the garbage on YouTube? Objectively, no.

Is it kind to folks like Miss Teen South Carolina or other YouTube laughingstocks at their worst, caught doing silly, foolish, or degrading things? Obviously not, but then again, there may be times when seeing a window into the darker parts of the soul of a football coach or politician may be a public service.

But if I’m charged with protecting an institutional brand, and I want to compete for attention in that marketplace with representatives of my college, my answer is “No.” No, I’m not going to put up 2nd rate hubris, which most college videos tend to be, and no, I’m not going to intentionally put my President wiping out on water skis or my dean of students in drag. Such a visual might be viral, but that kind of viral is a disease, not desirable publicity.

It’s a free country. Kids and faculty members are going to post stuff on YouTube. A lot of it will be embarrassing, and some of it will actually be a credit to the institution. But as a rule I’d say try to live in a way as an institution that avoids YouTube. Practice authenticity and transparency in both public and private … expect  your administrators and faculty to be the same people all the time … and then there won’t be much ugly, yukyuk junk to get skewered by on YouTube.
The YouTube phenomenon demonstrates, not the need for censorship, but the desirability of individual self-censorship.

While authenticity is a value I subscribe to, in my view it is not the highest value. Necessary and Kind are equally important values. Openness and authenticity are only a virtue when admirable, humane qualities are at the core of each person’s value system. Honor toward others, humility and kindness and other-centered nobility … these are the aspirational virtues that all institutional leaders should exemplify. Isn’t that one reason we call this biz “Higher Education”?

At its best, YouTube is a tribute to the human spirit; at its worst, it is a searchable, accessible latrine. You can’t stop people from reading about your school in a magazine they take into the bathroom. But you don’t have to paint your institutional tributes on the bathroom walls.
So my advice is to be cautious about relying on YouTube as a repository of your college’s reputation and messages.

Beedle-style Humor 

Humor — sarcastic, sophomoric humor as practiced by Andy Beedle and others, is not quite so easy to dislike. Wielded in an institutional setting, as part of an email campaign or website presence, this kind of humor can certainly distinguish your institution from the marketplace at the present time. Few colleges are willing to risk it, and the ones that do have perhaps enough to gain that they’re willing to take the risks that go with the territory.

Consider two examples from 2007 — the  Kettering Stickman series and the George Mason mascot series. Is that sort of humor “authentic”? Does breaking the mold, stepping out of the “dignified” and “moderate” speech patterns that colleges have always practiced, constitute a positive step toward honesty, authenticity, openness?  Obviously some folks think so, and there are some short term gains, it appears, at institutions that move in that direction.

Humor is fun, and I love humor. It’s a great way to get at truth in an accessible way. In fact, humor is essential to credibility, authenticity, accessibility.

I don’t think it’s possible to construct an effective fundraising or recruiting piece without authentic moments of self-effacing, natural humor.

Where I think humor can become dangerous is when it becomes sarcastic, caustic, or disrespectful. In my view this line may at times be difficult to recognize, but generally a cross-section of the institution’s members can see it if they give the matter a day or two to settle. For example, once I was working on a fundraising video and included a line from an interview that joked about how the college’s alumni are productive citizens, not landing in jail. It seemed innocent enough, and felt to me and most of the college’s review committee like an authentic moment of organic humor… and helped create a mood that turned warm and motivational just a few seconds later. But one member of the committee was unsure about it. She admitted it was funny, but it somehow didn’t feel right to her. The next day she called me and was able to verbalize why this wasn’t just a PC issue. Turns out the month before one of the college’s alums had been indicted and was awaiting trial in connection with the Enron scandal. So the joke would have gone sour in the minds of some alumni in the audience who knew and felt sorry for their discredited friend.

As a rule, humor that would burn someone should be thought of as acid humor. It should be avoided, or used with extreme care, because it is ultimately cut from the same cloth that produces disrespect, anarchism, nihilism, hate speech.

The kind of humor that works well is often confessional in nature. It doesn’t hurt anyone, and represents a refreshing candor on the part of the speaker, which many in the audience can relate to. For example in the current Cedarville admissions DVD, which won a Silver award in last year’s national Admissions Marketing Awards competition, after a series of short reasons as to why students chose Cedarville, I included a hesitant admission by one interviewee that she came there because her dad made her go there for a year. The whole comment is there; the double take, the moment of reflection, then the the smiling confession that she didn’t want to come there at all. When she was interviewed, she was still in the first year and had not yet decided whether to return. But I stuck it in the video because I knew it would be a chuckle moment for both students and parents, an acknowledgment that a lot of kids who want to gain the freedom of a college experience are pressured by their parents to attend a school with more structure and supervision.

In a fundraising video for the United Way, I included a humorous moment in which a guy said, “It don’t make a difference how much they take out of my pay… I mean, you know, as long as they don’t take too much…  Is that going to be on tape?”  It brought a sense of the reality that everyone struggles with finding a balance between their altruism and their personal and family goals.

Humor that works is refreshing, feels honest, doesn’t hurt anyone, and doesn’t cheapen or degrade either the people involved or the institution they represent. Humor that works may not be PC, but it also avoids throwing acid at other institutions or at the values and virtues that colleges and humanitarian organizations stand for. And that’s why I would urge colleges to be cautious before using some of the methods that seem to be proliferating right now.

Bottom line, humor that works well establishes an authentic brand of authenticity for the college. It remains true to the aspirational virtues and strengths of the college, while acknowledging the inconsistencies, diversity, and humanity that make that college as accessible and likable as it is strong and idealistic.

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