by Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications and author of “Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOS“
Authenticity has become the branding buzzword; overused so much, its meaning has been lost. With that in mind, I’m here to remind people that it does, in fact, matter — especially for leaders in business and beyond. Let me be brutally honest for a moment; in today’s world, where almost everything and anything is available with the click of a button and the right numbers in your bank account, there are very few things that aren’t for sale. In business and in life, these precious few treasures are what make or break a person’s reputation, success, and longevity.
Indeed, the very fact that authenticity is something that cannot be bought or gifted or lucked into, but must instead be forged and earned, is precisely why it does actually matter, far beyond its use as a buzzword. Building an authentic and genuine personal brand requires hard work and consistency over time, where each and every day you show up and be exactly who you say you are in all facets of your life—from private social media posts and text messages to internal business communications to public posts you actually want people to read. This level of integrity and authenticity cannot be bought or sold. It cannot be granted in an instant. It is the culmination of a process. You have to build it each and every day. And then do it all over again the next day.
So let’s dive in. The best place to start is with your foundation. Unlike previous generations, millennials and, even more so, zoomers have grown up chronically online. Which means if you’re graduating from college and about to enter the workforce, it’s very likely you’ve left behind a trail of virtual breadcrumbs, many of which you may feel don’t represent who you are today and some of which you may now regret. But before you begin to panic about old posts from “before you knew better,” fear not. While yes, it would have been ideal not to do your growing online for the world to see, there is a way to address this issue after the fact. As a communications expert with over 41 years of experience in the industry, I can tell you right now that everyone makes mistakes, and if you have truly grown, a sincere apology can set you on the path to building your reputation and brand in a way that reflects who you are today. So let’s dive into the reasons why words matter and why in a world where everything is for sale, the things that can’t be bought just become more priceless.
How to Build and Maintain a Personal Brand
The best way to start building an authentic brand (before you make any official announcements or social media posts) is to start within. Before anything else, you need to do some soul searching. Think about what matters most to you, what you believe in, what you want to champion, and the impact you want to have on others. Once you’ve done this, you can begin to authentically build your brand by making sure that each and every action you take and decision you make is aligned with these core beliefs and values. Think of it like building a house — every interaction you have with coworkers, every client and partner you work with, and yes, even every social media post you share is a brick in your brand foundation. What you do, how you treat others, and the ethical lines you draw are you laying the foundation of your career. This is why it’s so important that each area of your life is lived with integrity; your career will ultimately be the finished product, and it’s going to take a lifetime to build. So make sure it’s something you will be proud of.
Once you’re clear on what you want your personal brand to be and what you want to champion, while you might feel excited to dive in and hit that post button, hold off a little longer. It’s important to be authentic when you build your brand, but you also need to know what other people in your industry are already doing and saying. Get ready to do some research and be prepared to listen and learn before assuming you are the expert. Listening and really understanding the conversations you want to participate in, helps prevent accidental missteps that can happen without fully understanding the complex nuances and context of those conversations. In other words, act with consideration. There are no vacuums in life; context is everything and fully enmeshing yourself in it is how you become an adept communicator.
It’s really important to be clear on what you’re building and what sacrifices will be required of you moving forward. Know that now, because sticking to your values, always doing what you believe is right even and especially when it’s difficult, will inevitably require sacrifice, whether it be passing on a job, turning down a potential client, or declining funding. For example, if you decide to champion combating climate change, and you make that part of your brand, then you must be prepared to turn down potential clients, partners, and investors that aren’t aligned with this mission (like fossil fuel companies, companies that support climate politicians fighting climate change legislation, or companies that work with climate change deniers). This can mean making hard decisions, especially when you’re starting out and are just trying to keep the lights on for long enough to launch your career. The good news though is that if you truly build your brand with authenticity, then you never need to worry about embarrassing and damaging public callouts or being “canceled.” This is a godsend for anyone like me who actually likes being able to sleep at night.
What to do if some of your past content does not align with the brand you’re looking to build.
While you might be tempted to break out (or break down) your delete button on some old past tweets, if you’re already getting called out, this is generally not the answer, especially when screenshots exist. The good news is that a sincere apology will go a long way, the bad news is that most people don’t know what a real apology is. Here’s where my expertise can help — a real apology means owning your past mistakes (tweets included), acknowledging what you’ve done wrong, and stating how you plan to rectify it going forward. Before you hit send on any apologies though, take some time to do a little more soul searching and pause before rushing to request forgiveness. I advise this because a real apology isn’t actually about erasing past mistakes and demanding public forgiveness, it’s about learning from the past and taking appropriate action to ensure you don’t repeat it. It’s about growing and always striving to be better. And vitally, it’s not about you, but about those you have harmed.
It’s also critical to understand that an apology doesn’t bring absolution; it is where the real work of making things right begins.
The cold hard truth is this: if we don’t learn from our past mistakes, then we are doomed to repeat them. And I can tell you that while the public can be forgiving about a mistake, repeat offenders become increasingly more difficult to forgive (and are impossible to trust). And while you might feel especially eager to write off your mistakes as just that, do your future self a favor and make sure that you take the time to really learn from them so that you don’t keep digging yourself into an even deeper hole. This is precisely what I mean when I say that authenticity and integrity are priceless and actually do matter. Because anyone who has had to publicly apologize twice (or more) for the same thing can tell you that pill just becomes harder to swallow each time and that those who are standing in your corner will find it increasingly more difficult to continue to back you. In business and in life, relationships are everything. If you continually show that your word doesn’t matter, that you aren’t someone who can be trusted, you will very quickly find yourself alone. And no one succeeds on their own.
As someone who believes in second chances and forgiveness, along with seeing the best in others and making space for people to grow, after more than 40 years working in communications, I wish nothing more than for people to learn to listen, own up to their screw-ups, and for sanity’s sake, learn to really apologize. Non-apologies, deflection, defensiveness — they are so common they’ve become like fingernails on a chalkboard. And it doesn’t take expertise to be able to spot an inauthentic apology from a mile away. I’m always rooting for people to learn from their past mistakes because the truth is that we’re all human and we all make them whether we want to admit it or not. At the end of the day though, we all have to own them, take responsibility for them, and do our best to learn from them so that we grow instead of endlessly repeating them — that is in fact the best way to make amends. In a world where everything is for sale, integrity and authenticity just become more valuable. And being able to sleep at night knowing that who you say you are and who you actually are is, in fact, priceless.
Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communications, media, and public relations expert with over 35-years in the industry. Eric is also a bestselling author who literally wrote the book on public relations – the industry-standard bestseller PR for Dummies – as well as six other titles including “Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOS“.