Transparency and message control are not contradictions

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Wired Magazine and now AdAge have piled into the rather amorphous issue of corporate ‘transparency’, along with a slew of bloggers and pundits. Both are important articles that should be read by communicators and marketers alike.

So what’s left to say then?… well, being an opinionated sonofagun, I felt that both Creamer and Thompson glossed over a couple of important issues, the most important being around the issue of what the corporation has to ‘give up’ in order to be more transparent.

Without question, and per Dan Gillmore’s assertion cited in Creamer’s article, the move by companies to being more transparent (as ‘hackneyed’ a metaphor as it may be) is definitely trending upward.

That said, transparency – for all the good it does – does not, in my view, contradict the need for an organization to be able to ‘manage’ or ‘control’ the message it seeks to deliver to its audiences, regardless from where that message is coming from (be it the CEO, corporate spokespersons, or employees). That shouldn’t however be equated with spin nor be misconstrued as an attempt to conceal. Consider that we individually ‘manage’ our messages every day: in job interviews, in sales pitches, on first dates etc… by strategically considering what we want to say, based on who we’re saying it to, and we do so with no malicious intent (though some may question that as it relates to the first date). This I would deem to be no different.

Of course, the moment our message is unleashed on the world, our ability to manage or control that message is largely lost or, at best, heavily limited. Not only do organizations need to accept that, they need to view it as a positive in that that it creates a living litmus test to the quality and relevance of those messages. From that perspective, I agree with the article writers: organizations will have to become even more forthcoming (read transparent) in order to validate their points of view. But again, the desire to be transparent does not imply that an organization must toss out its right to manage the messages it delivers. Although it does mean changing how those messages are delivered and by whom. And it does mean acknowledging the fact that what you say will face significantly greater scrutiny, so you better get it right first time.   

Moreover, and contrary to where I believe Creamer is going, I would not suggest that transparency is an either-or proposition (get naked or don’t). Many organizations – even the Southwest’s, the Sun’s, the GM’s and other corporations who have actively embraced social media – still rely heavily on traditional ‘one-way’ or ‘locked down’ PR and marketing to communicate their message. Should that be seen as a repudiation to their desire to be more ‘transparent’ and to engage in a more open and ‘transparent’ dialog with their audiences? I don’t believe so. Rather, I would suggest it acknowledges the very different expectations, and behaviours, of an organization’s audiences, and the strategies or processes required to address those expectations.

So yeah, I will continue to counel clients to get ‘naked’. Legitimate efforts to increase transparency do build trust, and will continue to have an increasing impact on reputation. At the same time, many of these organizations still have businesses to run – businesses that rely on reaching sizable audiences via the channels through which they still receive the bulk of their information. And that will still require more traditional strategic thinking. How well we bridge the traditional to the new in this age of increasing transparency will be a key factor in our, and our clients, success.

3 Comments
03

May
2007

Leigh

I see your point Brendan, but I think the issue for me is manage and control.  I actually think one has very little control and one’s ability to manage has gone the way of the dodo bird.

Maybe it’s just the need for new strategic language on how companies attempt to connect with the people that both love and hate them and integrating that INTO their brand.

Hum…food for thought….

09

May
2007

Rajiv Harjai

Valid Point, but I think it is too idealistic and the in the real world more and more companies are will like to portray transparency, but control the message through other means.  

11

May
2007

Patrick McGee

i have always maintained that truth is a spectrum and that the person telling that truth selects data points from the spectrum to tell that truth. Companies are accused of hiding the truth if an observer doesn’t like the truth the company is telling. (Deceit is either by commission or omission – so yes, the truth can be hidden depending upon the inclusion or omission of certain data points.) Media and others tell their version of a truth by the same process. They select the data points to make up their truth tell. Everyone can justify their choice of the data points. Transparency and message control are approaches to the truth tell.

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