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Authenticity – It’s Only a Trap if You Make it a Trap

Companies Face Backlash for Only Partially Halting Operations in Russia

“Authenticity” has been the buzzword of choice for the last decade or so. It’s not hard to see why; coming out of the Bush era, at the bleeding edge of the crisis of trust in public institutions precipitated by things like the Iraq War and the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal – which lead inexorably to the post-truth world we now live in where we trust nobody and nothing – “authenticity” seemed like a promise: say what you mean and mean what you say, because nobody is interested in being lied to. But the end result was quite the opposite; in so dramatically focusing on “authenticity” without actually being authentic, the trust crisis only deepened. 

Add to that the dominance of value-based branding from companies vying to appeal to today’s consumers, and, well, here we are.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is notable for many reasons, most of which have been endlessly turned over and over by 24-hour news. But I want to draw your eyes, just for a moment, to something less commented-upon by the chattering classes: this is the first major war of the global era (and certainly the first in the age of TikTok), which has upended how companies here in the United States and across the West must respond. Those companies, by this point well-versed in the language of authenticity thanks to the sheer weight of the economic reality that millennials are the single largest purchasing demographic in the world and are quite tired of being lied to, thank you very much, have spent the last two months falling over themselves to voice concern and pledging to divest from Russia’s economy. 

It’s a smart move; nobody wants to get dragged into a general war in Europe, not after last time, so we’re all doing our best to project soft power. Divestment lets you square the circle of both taking a stand against aggression while also acceding to the simple reality that a war is the absolute last thing anyone needs right now, and between the crippling sanctions being leveled against Russia and Moscow’s naked aggression, major global brands have announced withdrawal from the Russian market: Coca-Cola, UPS, FedEx, Starbucks, Nestle (which has its own problems), BP, Goldman Sachs, Western Union, McDonald’s. Netflix, Google, and Amazon are just a sampling. It’s just good business after all – there has been a marked cultural shift among millennials and zoomers towards a socially-conscious consumerism that prioritizes doing business with companies whose values mirror their own, which makes charges of inauthenticity particularly sticky. 

But any sober reading of the situation will tell you that the rapid response to Russia’s invasion is as much indicative of knowing the market as it is of principle, and to be honest, probably considerably moreso. The trick is, and has always been, balancing messaging, balancing values, with cold, hard numbers – and capitalism has always erred on the side of numbers. It may like to pretend otherwise, but the whole point of capitalism is that it prioritizes return on investment – so any board-governed enterprise facing a CEO turning down that ROI is going to face resistance. That balancing act, however, has never been more delicate; social media elevates the loudest, angriest, least-nuanced voices, and the failure to match messaging with action – speaking inauthentically – has potential to explode with stunning rapidity. The kids (figuratively that is, millennials are well into their 30s at this point) are very keyed in – you may have learned how to use the internet, but they were born into it. They know the information

economy with the fluency of a first language, and have not historically proven reluctant to unleash that; the past is never past; the internet, as they say, always remembers. 

Withdrawal from the Russian economy, like any other business decision in this hot-button information ecology, must be handled forthrightly. If your company intends to say it’s divesting, well, you had better actually divest. To whatever degree you can’t do it – if you are so enmeshed in the economic life of the former Eastern Bloc that total divestment is not an action you can realistically take – that has to be communicated clearly. IKEA, for example, has announced it will not be divesting because it wants to ensure its Russian retail locations are available to provide necessities as Russia’s economy crumbles in front of our eyes, and it has not paid a price for its candor; in fact, it reflects a reasoned concern for how economic sanctions affect real-life people and not simply politicos and oligarchs. 

I’m never going to recommend a business bow to the whims of the Twitter mob; it moves like lightning, with little rhyme or reason beyond collective outrage at this or that, but the mob must be navigated and reckoned with, and the best way to do that is with honesty and authenticity, because younger generations have no tolerance for not and they can smell a rat a mile away. You can’t communicate values you don’t have and expect to be taken seriously. The truth will always come out, and you’ll pay the price. So take stock, figure out what you believe in, and make sure the company shows that to the world in deeds as much as in words.

Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communications, media, and public relations expert with over 40 years in the industry, having co-founded Jericho Communications and served as President …
… regular TV pundit, and his expert commentary has been featured in Forbes , Entrepreneur , The Washington Post , The New York Times , HuffPost , CNBC , MSNBC , Fox Business , Inc. , and PR Week , among others.