As someone who is currently working in a recruiting/marketing role in higher education, I am consistently involved in the media representation and strategic communications produced on behalf of the programs and organization I work with/for. I also have to make choices about how to engage in interactive technological communications (e-mails, video conferencing) and represent myself in digitally-mediated relationships as I recruit and advise prospective students. As has been the case for so many others, COVID-19 has only increased the amount of work and communication I do in the digital space.
An ethical value that is very important to me in my professional context and as a digital citizen advocate is authenticity and transparency, especially as it relates to media representation and digitally-mediated relationships. Higher education institutions often adopt and implement new information and communication technologies (ICTs) frequently, but little time is given for critical reflection on how they are being used (or how they ought to be used) by the students, faculty, and staff who engage with them (Paulus et al., 2019). So, in an effort to think critically, I’d like to explore what authenticity and transparency look like in media representation and online presence for a large organizational and, more specifically, for an individual representative of that organization.
Digital media and ICTs complicate meaningful pursuits of authenticity from a public relations standpoint; these technology-mediated realms of human interaction challenge what we see as authentic and make it harder to tell the difference between what is “real” and what is “fake” (Molleda, 2010). One need look no further than “reality” TV, social media personas, and journalistic integrity in the era of “fake news” to understand that not all claims of authenticity in media are substantive.
Additionally, an exchange of information—and by extension the authenticity of that information—is just that: an exchange. The presentation of information, authentic or otherwise, isn’t unidirectional; all actors have the potential to influence one another and the flow of information (Chin-Fook & Simmonds, 2011). Thus, the power behind authenticity claims does not rest solely with the creator or presenter of the content, but also with those who will be interpreting and negotiating meaning from it. That which is considered authentic by stakeholders will be socially and culturally influenced (Molleda, 2010).
But perhaps we must first further explore what the ethic of authenticity is before attempting to examine what it looks like in practice in digital spaces, especially from a marketing and communications lens. In a comprehensive literature review, Molleda (2010) found that several pervasive themes, definitions, and perceptions of authenticity consistently surfaced across a variety of disciplines. Taken as a whole, Molleda (2010) asserts that these claims may be used to “index” or measure authenticity to the extent that they are present in any given communication or media representation. Some of these key aspects of authenticity include:
- Being “true to self” and stated core values
- Maintaining the essence of the original (form, idea, design, product, service, etc.)
- Living up to others’ expectations and needs (e.g. delivering on promises)
- Being original and thoughtfully created vs. mass produced
- Existing beyond profit-making or corporate/organizational gains
- Deriving from true human experience
I have italicized the last of these markers of authenticity because it seems the most comprehensive—and perhaps the most important—marker in a digital space. Granted, certain aspects of human experience are not easily replicated in online media, including a grounded sense of time/place and sensory cues like smell, physical touch, or visual elements outside of a screen that would otherwise add context (McGregor, 2013). Consider the idyllic social media picture that fails to incorporate the “mess” of real life that we might otherwise see just outside the frame. What can be conveyed in digital media and communications, however, are human stories and that which directly flows out of those experiences. As Molleda (2010) says, “The search for, and identification of, real stories and people within organizations…is part of the critical job that [public relations] practitioners must perform” (p. 224).
In my context, that means that communication/marketing efforts grounded in student narrative and in my own relevant experiences will be organically authentic. Photographs, testimonials, and statistics derived from current student cohorts and recent graduates aren’t just helpful tools for marketing, they actually carry ethical weight. They will also likely be the most effective way to engage future students in a sincere way that is also received as authentic.
Additionally, a good test for authenticity is whether or not I—as an individual representative of my organization—am willing to “openly, publicly and personally be identified as the persuader in a particular circumstance” (Baker & Martinson, 2002, p.17). In other words, in my sphere of influence with media representation and communications, it’s important to stop and ask myself: am I willing to be personally associated with this content (Molleda, 2010)? There’s no doubt that in the digital space there are often blurred lines between personal and professional online identities, so it’s worthwhile to consider that professional actions and communications online might easily have personal consequences (and vice versa), both now and in the future.
Finally, and perhaps anecdotally, if we assume that true human experience lies at the heart of authenticity in the digital realm, there must be room for “customers” to decide whether or not the offerings (in this case, graduate programs) are indeed best fit for their needs. This goes against the nature of higher educational institutions that are perpetually competing for student tuition dollars, but if practicing authenticity includes a willingness to look beyond profit-making and organizational gains, then media representation and student interactions will allow students the space to decide what’s best for them, even if that means going somewhere else. If it becomes clear that the “product” I’m associated with can’t appropriately serve the aspirations and expectations of the interested party, then an ethic of authenticity would demand that I communicate as much to the prospect. This also requires attention to any “lie of omission” that might exist wherever a transfer of information takes place, a crime that is much easier to commit in a digital space. An ethic of authenticity goes beyond any kind of plan or strategic marketing campaign; authenticity is about presenting the essence of what already exists and whether (or not) it has the ability to live up to its own and others’ expectations and needs (Molleda, 2010).
Molleda (2010) concludes that consistency between “the genuine nature of organizational offerings and their communication is crucial to overcome the eroding confidence in major social institutions” (p. 233). I for one hope to continue embodying an ethic of authenticity in my professional work—in digital spaces and otherwise—in order to set the stage for that consistency and to bolster societal confidence in at least one higher education institution.
Baker, S. & Martinson, D.L. (2002). Out of the red-light district: five principles for ethically proactive public relations. Public Relations Quarterly, (47)3, 15-19.
Chin-Fook, L. & Simmonds, H. (2011). Redefining gatekeeping theory for a digital age. McMaster Journal of Communications, 8, 7-34. https://journals.mcmaster.ca/mjc/article/view/259
Molleda, J. (2010). Authenticity and the construct’s dimensions in public relations and communication research. Journal of Communication Management,14(3), 223-236. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.spu.edu/10.1108/13632541011064508
McGregor, K.M. (2013). Defining the ‘authentic’: Identity, self-presentation and gender in Web 2.0 networked social media. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Edinburgh]. Edinburgh Research Archive. http://hdl.handle.net/1842/16240
Paulus, M.J., Baker, B.D., & Langford, M.D. (2019). A framework for digital wisdom in higher education. Christian Scholar’s Review, 49(1), 41-61. http://works.bepress.com/michael_paulus/68/