A Conversation with Vern Oakley, CEO of Tribe Pictures
The nature of authenticity and trust is changing. Recently I wondered, is it possible to fake authenticity? And can trust exist between people and organizations without authenticity? It’s an existential question for corporate communications professionals: our work serves to create trust between not only customers and companies, but between employees, employers, and the public.
I had the chance to chat with Vern Oakley, CEO of Tribe Pictures and author of Leadership in Focus: Bringing Out Your Best on Camera, about the relationship between authenticity and trust, and what it means for communications professionals.
Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Ethan: I’m authentically happy to be talking with you about authenticity. I have a question for you Vern, and I know it’s something that you’ve been thinking about a lot. How is authenticity related to trust when it comes to corporate communications?
Vern: I just gave a speech at The Conference Board about trust being the most valuable commodity, and I told a story about being raised on my grandparents’ farm during the summers and one of the things he always taught me is a man’s word is his bond. And so that becomes sort of one’s character.
I believe the leadership, particularly the CEO, becomes the lightning rod for that kind of trust. You only have to think of companies like Wells Fargo or United Airlines or Uber to see what can go wrong for companies when they don’t really have that trust in place. Trust can be a byproduct of authenticity. So, authenticity in itself isn’t the currency, its authenticity with trust and character that really connect the dots. Developing trust is a very fragile commodity easily lost and broken. And particularly in a digital society with all the tools and transparency that’s out there we have to be even more authentic and be careful about building that trust.
Ethan: You can see what’s happening across the board in a way that you never could before and that’s a totally new thing. The new thing is, you know, all the behaviors, the things that we used to call ‘internal communications’ because they were internal, all of that stuff has been exposed. Authenticity and trust being related has a lot to do with the fact that the inside of organizations is revealed now more than ever.
It used to be that the first public that an organization had to deal with was its customers, but I really think of the employees of any organization as the first public. And I don’t think most organizations are geared to maximize that reality. There are a lot of folks who still think, “Oh, what we say and do internally stays internal.” I no longer believe that construct is very useful.
Consider my own experience riding in Uber when they first started; when that whole industry first started everybody got into the Uber and said, “Wow, this is different.” Here in New York taxi cabs are such an important feature of the landscape and of life and then suddenly we’re in these black cars or in people’s personal cars. You ask the driver, “What’s it like to be a driver for Uber?” And they start to tell you how they feel it’s kind of a rip-off and they’re also driving for Lyft and they’re treated better there or something. Well suddenly that driver is the expert on that company. There’s no internal or external at that moment. It’s just this total experience that you’re having with the brand. And that’s very, very authentic because it’s coming from someone who really knows and you’re either having a moment where trust is being built or trust is being degraded.
The airline industry is also a really good example, because in the travel and transportation industries you have an experience with the marketing – you see all kinds of ads for this airline or that airline and hotels as well. And then when you actually buy the product you have that experience of the transaction of course, but it is so immersive in the physical environment of that plane or hotel room. During this experience you interacted with all of these different people like the gate agent and the person who gets your luggage and the flight attendant. And when you’re in the plane you have the physical environment of the plane. But the thing about interactions with that individual who brings you a drink or helps you through the various stressful processes of travel, well, it doesn’t matter how much money they spent on the marketing or on the color of the carpets or on the degree to which the seat leans back. Your total experience is defined by that human interaction.
It’s crazy because you’re flying in a 100 million dollar plane and this one interaction with this person could totally ruin the experience. I think that’s the power of that authentic experience with a person. And I think it’s close to impossible to fake. What do you think? Can you fake authenticity?
Vern: Well the way I think about this is that people do business with people and it’s not that I do business with Southwest, it’s that I get on a plane and I’m greeted by somebody from Southwest and that person either makes my experience good or not. And yes, really good actors can fake authenticity. There’s that famous quote, “The most important thing in learning to act is to be truthful. And once you learn to fake that, you’re all set.”
If you look at some of the journal literature about authenticity, there’s different levels of authenticity. Listen, you and I are having authentic conversation, but if you were home talking to your parents you might have a different authentic conversation. When you’re talking to your kids you might have a different one than talking to the Uber driver. Authenticity gets modulated in terms of the social circumstances we’re in.
Ethan: I think the strategy around authenticity, if you’re trying to design authenticity into your brand experience or your communications plan, is to really seek those kinds of individuated nuggets that are correct for that interaction. Like you were saying, it would be a very different kind of nugget of authenticity that would emerge with my mom compared to my interaction with a client. But that doesn’t mean I’m being fake for mom or fake for my client. I think it’s one of those things that when we’re producing communications assets becomes really, really important to hone in on. The last time we talked, you were telling me a bit about maximizing authenticity when producing videos, particularly for executives. Would you talk a little bit about that?
Vern: Great question. Since I started my whole journey in the theater world as a director and studying how to get the performance out of actors. In that field, what you’re trying to do is take the twin masks of drama and comedy and sort of merge them seamlessly with the actors, so they fully inhabit a character and that you, for that time in the movies or in the theater, enjoy that performance from that actor feeling that they’re really a real person. Perhaps that’s why when I come into authenticity in terms of putting leaders on camera, I think our job is to remove the mask.
Carl Jung says, “The privilege of a lifetime is just to become who you truly are.” And so, in my book, I talk about a journey of really deeply embracing who you are so that a camera can actually capture that, which is a more exciting journey, a more real journey because the camera captures truth at 24 frames a second.
Now some people, actors, whether they be Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump or Al Franken or others, can fake in the public sphere. And they’re very good at it. But most people don’t have the training or the disposition to fake it. So, the hardest part is to reveal themselves and to be vulnerable because these high powered people, generally Type A, are used to being in control of a situation. And when they come onto the studio, wherever they’re being filmed, there are other people that actually have to help them, and other people in control. So there becomes a dynamic between the person who’s interviewing you and the leader, and I call that the sacred space.
Ethan: Aside from becoming a professional actor, how would you advise me to tease out that sacred space when I’m sitting there with my Senior Vice President of Sales and he has a little bit of anxiety about having a camera in his face?
Vern: Well, I can give some tips to people who aren’t used to putting people on camera, but the first thing that I’m doing is having a conversation with them outside of the sphere of the set or the camera and just talking to them. And generally, in a conversation people are a little more candid, a little bit more who they are. And then sometimes they get in front of the camera and they become a different person. So, I think our goal is always to get that person to be who they are in the casual conversations with a bit more emphasis on words and communication and body language and tonality, but not to become someone else. Not to become the CEO or the leader of this particular group, but to be themselves and take their selves and their beliefs and communicate the message.
Ethan: Be your authentic self or ultimately be called out on it. I guess there’s kind of a philosophical question that follows, if I’m being my authentic self because of a fear of consequences, is it really authentic? But I’ll tell you what Vern, I’ll take it. If that’s what drives people to do better with higher levels of integrity, I’ll take that. Well, we should probably close here, but I have one more question for you. How do you think people who do professional communications or communicate on behalf of organizations can engender this trust and deliver authenticity most effectively to their customers and their employees and the media?
Vern: Well, I have a very strong point of view about it. I said it earlier, but people do business with people. I think you have to humanize your leaders. You have to humanize your employees. You have to consistently do storytelling that, with a foundational base about the values and the mission and the purpose that surfaces up in the way that employees do their job. You have to hold the people who do exemplary jobs up and show them to everyone else and say, “This is what success can look like at our company.”
Peter Drucker used to say, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” I think that is last century. Not that we don’t have to create customers, but the purpose of sustainable business is to provide meaningful work to its employees. To provide profits for its investors. To provide a working and positive relationship with the community and all the stakeholders so that everyone is serviced because it doesn’t work if everybody isn’t winning.
Ethan McCarty is the CEO of Integral Communications Group, a consultancy that enables organizations large and small to engage, inspire and activate employees on behalf of their employers. Follow Ethan on Twitter at @ethanmcc and connect with the Integral team at www.integralcommunications.com