Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre hotels, has provided us a lens through which we may evaluate the difference between--and the differing significance of--transparency and authenticity.
You can read about Conley's dilemma on BNET, but it boils down to this--he's a rock-and-roll CEO who lives large and believes in authenticity. Some of his employees objected when he posted shirtless photos of himself to the Facebook profile the company PR firm created for him. He believes his employees are wrong to be concerned and asks "What, exactly, does it take to damage the image of the company?"
It's a great question, and the fact he asked it publicly in a blog post teaming with slights to his employees and justifications for his actions may furnish the answer he seeks. I think a case may be made that Conley has damaged his company, but not because of his Facebook photos; it's his actions after his employees voiced their concerns--actions that prioritize transparency over authenticity--that may possibly prove troublesome for Joie de Vivre.
Conley's shirtless photos were clearly authentic. But so were the concerns of employees. The collision of two contrary but authentic beliefs provided Joie de Vivre with a golden opportunity for internal dialog about the brand, the organization's Social Media policies, and authenticity. But this is not what happened, because instead of engaging employees, Conley took his concerns public in a blog post in which he admits his first reaction was, “Screw that; people who don’t like it can go work at Marriott.”
In making the concerns of his employees and his own reaction public, Conley has opted for transparency over authenticity. Airing his grievances with employees was transparent, but it would have been more authentic to discuss the matter with his employees. Remember that authenticity means keeping true to ideals, and it is clear Conley has an ideal that employee opinions matter. He is proud to have implemented a "cultural ambassador" program in which employees vote for their own representatives on matters of organizational culture. In fact, it was some of these ambassadors who expressed concerns about Conley's Facebook shots!
Conley's desire for transparency ran headlong into his commitment to authenticity, and he opted to voice his opinions and seek support from outsiders rather than demonstrate care and respect for his ambassadors' feedback. I believe he was transparent, but violated his own ideals, which was inauthentic.
This isn't the first time we've seen transparency collide with authenticity, nor is it the first reminder that authenticity always wins. Cisco rescinded a job offer because the candidate tweeted she was weighing "a fatty paycheck against... hating the work"--transparent, but not authentic to her personal and professional goals, I suspect. A PR firm Social Media consultant found himself in a very public embarrassment after tweeting that he "would die" if he had to live in his client's hometown--completely transparent, and also completely inauthentic in terms of his professional ideals.
I sometimes think we stress transparency too much in Social Media; after all, in the real world we are all different people in different situations--we behave differently when interacting with our parents, our boss, and our friends. Does that make us liars? No, we sacrifice complete transparency in order to be authentic to our ideals in different ways within different relationships. (I've had friends point out that I have a fairly blue sense of humor that never comes through on Twitter, but I feel my tweets are authentic to my professional passions, even though my guarded approach on Twitter may be less than fully transparent.)
So, my answer to Conley's question--What, exactly, does it take to damage the image of the company?--is that his photos didn't cause harm, but his overly transparent way of dealing with an internal issue may have hurt his relationships inside the organization. He failed to honor his ideals that employees--particularly the ambassadors--have opinions that matter, and in doing so he made transparency more important than authenticity.
What do you think? Was Conley authentic by venting his feelings publicly? Do you think he'd be as accepting if one of his employees chose to post internal disagreements on a blog rather than address them directly within the organization? And in a Social World, is it possible to be transparent but inauthentic?