Authenticity in a Terrible Tweet

Generally these posts will be about articles on authenticity. However, an incident occurred on Twitter recently that is just crying out for authenticity analysis.

The Incident
Geoffrey Miller, a tenured professor in the USA, recently tweeted to prospective PhD students “Dear obese PhD applicants: If you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth“. Predictably, the internet world freaked out. Miller then did a few things:

First, he deleted the tweet.

Then he apologised.

Then, when the scrutiny did not abate, he claimed the tweet was part of a research project. However neither of the institutions he works for indicated he had applied for ethics for such a project. This meant that either he was conducting research not sanctioned by his institutions (unlikely) or he was making that up as an excuse (lying, in other words).

Then a completely unrelated study found that if you are obese, especially if you are a woman, you are less likely to be selected for postgraduate study, due to a bias on behalf of those performing candidate selection.

For those of us interested in authenticity, this is an interesting situation. I don’t know Miller, but I am guessing his tweet was authentic. I believe him when he indicated that opinion, and there is no evidence to the contrary. In fact, in his apology, he apologised for saying it–not for thinking it.

Moreover, the subsequent study demonstrated that not only is Miller authentic about his own opinion, he likely gave voice to opinions held by others (at least on some PhD admissions boards).

So was authenticity s good thing in this case?

The case analysed through 360da
Let’s run through this case quickly on a 360da grid:

Objective: Miller tweeted his own opinion under his own name, and represented himself accurately as far as we can see.

Constructive: Miller did not take into account the number of people who would see and then react to his tweet. If this isn’t the reaction he was looking for (and it doesn’t seem to be) then he made a serious misstep. However, the message was authentic, he was authentic when he was saying it and…the audience received it in an authentic way. So his authenticity on this note was 100%; the wrong note was his expectation that people agree with him.

Commercial: Miller was true to himself. Although his tweet didn’t do much for him from a public relations perspective; he knows who he is and potentially just attracted a whole bunch of carb-hating prospective grad students his way.

Existential: His inauthentic move was to apologise and delete the tweet; he would have seemed like a more authentic person if he admitted it was badly worded but it was his perspective as an evolutionary psychologist (and then provided research demonstrating his reasons for thinking it). Instead he was forced by social forces to retract his comment. Giving in to those forces is an inauthentic move.

The verdict
Miller said what he genuinely thought; then tried to backtrack which came across as grossly inauthentic. Then it was revealed that others share his view–they just don’t talk about it (they might not even be aware they share his view). Transparency is a big part of authenticity, so Miller gets points for that.

What is interesting about this case is that his authenticity is, to many, socially repulsive. It is not socially acceptable in a lot of cultures to declare that fat people are less worthy of something than thin people. So although his comments are authentic, this case doesn’t make many look on Miller more positively.

The institutions he represents attempt to maintain the perception of an intellectual meritocracy: where students earn their place through academic rigour. Not eating carbs is not considered academic rigour. And although Miller might have a large say in who ends up being his students, his institution does too. So his perspective as a staff member of a university was not authentic to his employer. And it angered them.

Moreover, rather than put forward the scientific evidence to support his view, he backtracked. This will have lost those (silent) people out there that agree with his point of view. It also made him come across as someone who uses his academic credentials to give his opinion, rather than take an evidence-based approach to his views.

The take away
First, and most obviously, understand the medium one uses to broadcast a message. There is a cautionary tale here for those of us who forget that the internet=the whole world. The whole world=people who don’t agree with you.

Secondly, be prepared to support your view authentically, especially if it is a controversial view.

Thirdly, if you represent an organisation when you say something, that organisation pays you and you wish to continue to be paid, it is important to take into consideration the way that organisation sees itself and wishes to have the public see it.

From a marketing perspective, it is OK to be controversial. It is one of the ways that we make our product/brand stand out. However, doing it strategically, authentically and unapologetically is an approach that Miller, and the rest of us, can learn from.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s