Getting Truthy about Transparency – One "Transparentist’s" view

posted by Brendan Hodgson

It’s snowing in April. Kurt Vonnegut is dead. This Blogger Code of Conduct nonsense is like a bad smell that just won’t go away. And now…. ?

Please, Mr. Webber. To consider that an organization even has a choice about being “transparent” (or being seen to be “transparent”) is laughable in 2007. Transparency is being imposed upon them whether they want it or not – and my guess is that they would chose the “not”. But does that really matter?

In an age where disgruntled and dissatisfied customers have the tools to broadly share and aggregate negative experiences with a specific brand or product; where activists or concerned citizens can post stories, videos and photos of inappropriate or unethical behaviour that contradict an organization’s flowery prose around social responsibility; and where employees can leak internal memos or expose management wrong-doing… PR people can’t simply counsel their clients or senior executives to circle the wagons and rely on spin to make the problem go away.

Granted, this doesn’t mean flinging the doors to the executive suite or the shop floor wide open (then again, what do you have to hide?), although where issues of personal privacy, material disclosure or other areas of legality come into play, clear lines have to be drawn.

Rather, it means embracing the notion that much of what you say and do (as an organization) – and more importantly, much of what your employees say and do (as representatives of that organization) - will be publicly scrutinized, and potentially challenged. Not only do we need to accept this reality, we need to re-think the practice of PR accordingly, and consider how we bridge the divide between what our customers are saying and what we’re saying, and ensuring that the relationships we foster are built on open, authentic dialog (not just from the perspective of the communications department, but from the organization overall). Because who are you going to trust otherwise?

Telling stories that are in the best interest of our clients is fine - but is it enough? And is the PR department the appropriate distiller of those messages such that they ring true to our constituents? Vonnegut wrote in “Breakfast of Champions: “The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.” And that, to me, is what our business should be about.

7 Comments
12

Apr
2007

Bob LeDrew

GREAT post, Brendan. I hope that more people comment on this. Webber is deluding himself, IMNSHO.

12

Apr
2007

Brendan Hodgson

Thanks Bob… methinks his article was intended to spark comment. Let’s hope he’s playing a bit of devil’s advocate. Hope to see you on Monday night.

12

Apr
2007

Thomas Pleil

Just to explain my Pingback: I wrote about a company whose employees are posting in fora – paid by different companies  but  claiming they are private persons. They call it viral marketing, I think it’s astroturfing and I recommended to read your post.

17

Apr
2007

Kari Nelson

The way the PR is going, to not be transparent invites inquiry and perhaps suspicion, but surely we cannot bear all. It is strangely ironic that Waggener Edstrom’s document was in response to a reporter writing about Microsoft’s corporate transparency. It could be interpreted as a further demonstration of openness. Of course, this was actually a complete blunder. Waggener Edstrom’s apologies in this case prove that PR firms can in fact be too transparent. The question, then, is where is the line? The detailed play-by-plays are to be kept hush hush and matters of competition are not for disclosure, so what then must stay on display? Or perhaps a display is not necessary, but rather a willingness to divulge if asked. Still, there is a delicate balance.

17

Apr
2007

Brendan

Hi Thomas, thanks for the clarification. Even with Google translation, I wasn’t entirely sure.

Kari, agreed. There is a delicate balance. Certainly we, the PRs, cannot bear all. Where I think our role now lies (or extends to), is creating the conditions that enable – where appropriate – broader exposure to the people who actually make the decisions or deliver on the promises: by encouraging those at the most important points of contact to communicate (with confidence) on behalf of their organization – from the CEO down to community relations officers, to the person at the call centre or the client-facing rep at the gas pumps, the retail outlet, or the customer service desk. Personally, I believe the Wagg-Ed blunder obfuscated the real issue: whether it’s a CEO talking to shareholders, a product manager talking to a reporter, or someone on a first date, we still require the right tools and techniques (and confidence) to ensure those interactions are beneficial to the parties involved. That’s got nothing to do with transparency. That’s about basic human interaction.

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