Our CEO, Ethan McCarty, had a chance to interview Vern Oakley, the CEO of Tribe Pictures, an award-winning film producer and the author of Leadership in Focus: Bringing Out Your Best on Camera. Vern shared his perspective on the relationship between authenticity and trust — and how communications professionals can maximize both for their organizations. Take a look at their conversation below.
Q: How is authenticity related to trust when it comes to corporate communications?
Vern: Wow, that’s a good one. I just gave a speech 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 complete 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 is 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. I think the idea of authenticity and trust being related have a lot to do with the fact that the inside of organizations are 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 really geared to maximize that reality. There are a lot of folks who are kind of still thinking, “Oh, what we say and do internally stays internal.” I don’t think that construct is very good.
I think about my own rides in Uber, when they first started, when that whole industry first started everybody got into the Uber and said like, “Wow, this is different.” Here in New York taxi cabs are such an important feature of the landscape and of life here 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 and they go into how they feel it’s a rip-off and they’re also driving for Lyft and they’re treated better there or something. Well suddenly they’re 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.
Q: 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. Like 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.
Q: Previously 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 sort of started my whole journey in this 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 am talking about this being 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, faking 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 are high powered people, generally Type A, who 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 that are in control. So there becomes a dynamic between the person who’s interviewing you and the leader, and I call that the sacred space.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.