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Keep It Real—Or Lose Trust

Famous for his quick wit, comedian Groucho Marx supposedly once said that, “sincerity is the key to success. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” Vaudeville star, and Mr. Television himself, George Burns is also credited for once stating, “Sincerity—if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” The irony behind the fact that both these famous entertainers are quoted as saying the same thing about authenticity is that it is uncertain if either of them are an original source of the quote.

When actors and entertainers play a character, the audience knows it isn’t real. The same is true when professional communicators try the same thing. Yet, some in the profession still attempt to cut corners and risk their company or client message by trying to fake the sincerity of the message they are trying to convey—by faking the delivery of a message.

It never works. More accurate quotes from Marx or Burns should be “If you fake sincerity, you will get caught.”

Recently in Washington, DC a front group calling themselves Share Better released a commercial featuring someone attacking Airbnb for making her “feel like an outsider in her own neighborhood.” The ad features dated photos as the narrator claims she was “five years old we moved to the neighborhood.” She continues to say that it doesn’t feel like the place she grew up or raised her children before launching into a scathing attaching on Airbnb.

The problem? The woman featured in the ad is an actress in New York City. The bigger problem, real people in the neighborhood who are Airbnb hosts called out the fake ad, leaving the deception of those behind it to become the story. The local news in Washington, DC has caught on, and now the messages the hotel industry was trying to convey via an actress and front group are exposed.

It was only a few weeks ago when the hotel industry was exposed for attempting to thwart the growing success of home-sharing marketplace Airbnb by throwing up political roadblocks. The ad in Washington, DC is surely part of that campaign. Unfortunately, for them any standing they may have had to make a point are now mired in doubt—simply because of how the communicators have chosen to deploy a message.

Actors get accolades when they perform so well that they make the audience believe in their character—communicators lose all credibility and trust when they try the same thing.

There is a level of trust that comes with communicating a message. Using actors, fake pictures, incomplete information, to make a point will end of distracting from the very message you are trying to convey in the first place.

Steve Shur, President of the Travel Technology Association, (of which Airbnb is a member) shared his disappointment at the tactics being deployed in the front group’s commercial by stating, “They are hurting their own cause by these dishonest tactics. When the powerful hotel lobby erects fake grassroots organizations, the credibility of their claims with councilmembers needs to be taken into account. It would be more genuine if the hotels just told the truth: that they are trying to limit competition from short-term rentals through the legislative process. Short term rentals provide a great benefit to the city, its citizens, and travelers, our industry will communicate that value proposition to decision makers. That is the only way we know how to communicate—honestly and openly.”

Shur makes an excellent point. When making a political or policy point a communicator has everything to gain by telling stories of how an action or decision will impact real people. Leading with the benefits will inspire desired actions by decision makers. Unfairly attacking opponents will only lead to a lack of trust and credibility.

There is nothing wrong with organizing a coalition. There is nothing wrong with issue advocacy advertising. There is nothing wrong with trying to influence and persuade decision makers. When doing so, however, honesty is not just the best policy, it is the only one.

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