The new authenticity

In his book Meditations in an Emergency, American writer and poet Frank O’Hara wrote: “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.”

As Australia’s bushfire crisis escalated during December and January, it became clear that the people we loved vicariously through our TV and mobile screens, were unsurprisingly not our politicians.

Instead we “loved” the hardworking battlers: the CFS volunteers who stood strong in the face of the flames, who held the hands of people as they trod through their burnt out houses, who found homes for injured and dispossessed animals and who made endless rounds of sandwiches and cups of tea in country halls.

But there was also another “love” phenomenon this year. The trusted role that politicians and church leaders and even certain charities might have once had in our community was usurped by celebrities and social influencers – film stars, comedians, singers and models.

So is this the new authenticity in 2020?

Redefining influence

Influencers – a person or group with the ability to change the behaviour or opinions of others – were around long before the advent of Instagram, Kardashians and skinny tea.

In fact, the word ‘influencer’ appears in a quarter of William Shakespeare’s plays and if you ask Pope Francis, the world’s first influencer was the Virgin Mary (followed swiftly by her son) according to a recent Tweet. #blessed

In our increasingly globalised and digital world, the definition of an influencer transcends purely someone that affects behaviour and changes opinions.

An influencer in the modern sense has the ability to make or break purchasing decisions, thanks to their authority, knowledge, position and perhaps most powerfully, the “love” relationship they have with their audience.

From pets with better fashion sense than you, to beauty bloggers, there’s an influencer for every niche, and they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Latest research shows the influencer marketing industry is on track to be worth up to $15 billion by 2022, up from as much as $8 billion in 2019.

But as Laurence Scott writes in this prescient piece for the New Yorker Magazine, “influence doesn’t have to be aligned with corporate interests.”

Influencing for good was on show during the bushfires, with an outpouring of support (and a whole lot of money) flowing from the followers of social media influencers and celebrities.

At the Golden Globe Awards, Russel Crowe and Cate Blanchett used their speeches to bring awareness to the bushfire and climate crisis, while comedian Magda Szubanski teamed up with “Egg Boy” (aka William Connolly), to raise over $40,000 in less than a day to support the mental health of bushfire victims.

Innovative and entrepreneurial LA-based Instagram model Kaylen Ward – now known as ‘The Naked Philanthropist’ – claims to have raised an estimated $1 million for bushfire relief efforts through sending naked pictures of herself to anyone who donated $10 to charities involved in relief efforts (not all heroes wear clothes).

Comedian and Instagrammer Celeste Barber’s Facebook fundraiser for the NSW Rural Fire Services – now the largest ever created on the platform globally – raised more than $50 million dollars. A staggering 1.2 million people from 75 countries donated their cash simply because Celeste – who trades on parodying the inauthentic – asked for it!

Even the famous American singer and flutist, Lizzo, took time out during her recent Australian tour to pack hampers at Foodbank in Melbourne, not only doing her bit on-the-ground, but also raising global awareness for the emergency effort at the same time.

The title of the article on Whimn.com.au says it all: “Lizzo Volunteers At A Melbourne Foodbank, Instantly Becomes Our PM”.

And why would Whimn suggest Lizzo becomes Australia’s Prime Minister? Perhaps, because a tokenistic handshake (or refused handshake in our PM’s case) is no longer good enough for a society that expects action and authenticity from people in positions of power.

The importance of reputational deposits in crisis communication

When a crisis hits, how an influencer or leader acts, responds and behaves lays down a reputational deposit in his or her bank of goodwill.

While celebrities and social influencers were quickly rallying troops to support the cause, Prime Minister Scott Morrison (aka #SmoKo and #ScottyFromMarketing), was missing-in-digital-action.

Clearly the PM’s minders let him down, veiling his Hawaii holiday in unnecessary secrecy.

But then they backed up with a clumsy and widely-criticised PR campaign on his return to Australia – he was on the back-foot from the beginning, unable to get ahead of the 24-hour news cycle, or win back the trust of his own quiet Australians.

From forcefully shaking the hands of bushfire survivors in NSW, to getting the death toll for the Kangaroo Island fires wrong, traditional media and social media were taking no prisoners when it came to ScoMo’s less-than-perfect attempts at rebuilding trust…and his brand.

His reputational withdrawals, from what had been quite a solid bank of goodwill built up during his first year in the top job, had run dry.

So, what tips could his minders have taken from modern influencers to regain his reputation?

Ultimately, a leader that demonstrates compassion, and authenticity listens. Their verbal and body language needs to be humble, truthful, open and honest. This differentiates poor leaders from great ones.

Leaders who have become influencers by doing just that in times of national or reputational crisis include Prince Harry, who recently spoke publicly, openly and vulnerably about his decision to step down from the Royals; Jacinda Ardern who cried with, listened to, and held the victims of the Christchurch Mosque shootings in her arms, while also taking serious action on gun control; and Canada’s own PM Justin Trudeau, who apologised to his constituents in response to his black-face scandal, saying: “I let a lot of people down, and I’m very sorry for that”.

Rather than pushing the blame back on the Australian people’s own “anxiety”, Scott Morrison could have apologised earlier and rolled up his sleeves more swiftly.

Sure, no-one wants a Prime Minister and his media entourage getting in the way of dangerous fire-fighting work, as Morrison acknowledged.

But he might have taken some statesmanlike tips from the NSW Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons who managed to convey a sense of dignity, reliability and trust despite the enormous pressures he was facing.

Or a leaf out of Premier Stephen Marshall’s playbook, who quietly cancelled leave and remained on 24/7 call to assure, soothe and empathise.

Or Kangaroo Island local member Leon Bignell who used his Facebook profile to raise funds for the purchase of UHF radios and convey information to the worst hit communities.

While a week is a long time in politics and many of Morrison’s detractors will move on to other issues when Parliament resumes, he could not have wished for a worse start to the year, with Anthony Albanese seizing preferred prime minister status in the first published opinion poll of 2020 – purely a result of bad crisis management advice.

Influencing outcomes together

In her book Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes states: “when it comes to crisis communications, if you always focus on building a relationship with your customers, fans and followers, you will always find yourself communicating in the right direction.”

With the rise of social media, today’s celebrities and social influencers have developed their own form of political power, strengthened by a very direct, and authentic relationship with their followers.

Politicians will do well to study this new authenticity and learn from it.

Celebrities are not bound by party machines or back benchers, by approval ratings and polls. They freely jump to the support of causes that they instinctively feel their fans support…and most of the time they seem to get the mood right.

It is this very freedom of expression that rings the bells of Morrison’s quiet Australians and it is this unfettered freshness that our micro-managed leaders need to rediscover if they expect to rekindle a relationship with voters.

Our leaders will need everyone behind them this year as they attempt to rebuild regional economies through agricultural stimulation and the tourism recovery package.

Searching for an authentic tone, the PM’s speech writers could learn a lot from President John F Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

In 2020, it is the survival and success of Australia that is at stake.