As PR professionals, we hear it almost every day: We live in a world of “transparency.” In order to survive, we’re told, businesses must become more “transparent.” We hear about how essential “transparency” is to building relationships of trust with the public.
Unfortunately, this noble concept is a dangerously vague one.
Indeed, failing to reign in this vagueness can have the effect of loading people with unrealistic expectations. While increased transparency is necessary in today’s world, its intentions and implications should be clearly defined when efforts are communicated. Otherwise, this well-intentioned concept could turn into a self-defacing one.
Facets of Transparency
Despite the term’s prevalence, definitions of what it means in the business sense are very difficult to come by. This is likely due to the term’s many facets: does it concern business relationships? Insider news? User data? Strategies and upcoming plans? Closer engagement with leadership?
These questions are rarely answered clearly. If you listen to the rhetoric of corporations, governments and the media, one might conclude that we’re on the brink of some utopian revolution in which every brick wall is replaced with a glass window.
Why? Because we rarely hear which brick wall(s) will be made transparent, and which will be left alone.
Thus, in the Obama administration’s drive towards increased transparency, the initiative’s shortcomings seem to have drawn more attention than the actual plans themselves. What was meant by these new plans for transparency? Did it mean more engagement with the public? The release of sensitive data?
We didn’t know. Ironically, it seems that announcements of transparency are often quite untransparent themselves.
Klout’s latest algorithm change was announced in a blog post under the title of “A More Accurate, Transparent Klout Score.” As much as I admire Klout, I was quite disappointed by their misleading use of “transparent” in the title. The post contained very little info to help me truly understand the cogs that underlie my Klout score.
Perhaps they truly were transparent in regards to a facet that they’d intended. But clearly, the facet of “transparency” that I expected was different than the facet of “transparency” that Klout was willing to give me (whatever that even was).
Understandably, I left the post feeling as if I’d just been lied to.
We’ll Reveal (Some of) the Iceberg
As anyone with even the thinnest sense of business realities understands, too much transparency isn’t healthy for anyone. But without a specific layout of transparency efforts, the boundaries of interpretation are limitless.
British newspaper The Guardian has taken precautions against this effect. Recently, they announced plans to begin posting their editorial schedule online each day, allowing readers to see what’s going to be published ahead of time and engage with the authors of the stories before they’re published. Their announcement of the effort was heavy with disclaimers such as the following:
We won’t quite show you everything. We can’t tell you about stories that are under embargo or, sometimes, exclusives that we want to keep from our competitors, but most of our plans will be there for all to see, from the parliamentary debates we plan to cover to the theatre we plan to review. We reserve the right to stick to our guns, but would love to know what you think.
This is a valiant move for The Guardian, and one that I’m delighted to see happen. And it’s this paragraph that provides a blunt reminder of the practical limits of transparency (In my opinion, one of the most telling gauges of societal transparency comes from the news industry itself).
The Economist has raised another fine point about transparency, advocating for more open disclosure of biases by news sources and journalists alike. They go on to argue that Fox News’s idea of “Fair & Balanced” — in the context of profit-driven news sources — is quite an untransparent one. However, being transparent about any political slant would fly in the face of expectations of unbiased journalism. At least for the moment, most news agencies know better than to openly acknowledge their political leanings.
In sum, our loose communication of transparency efforts has led to overstated and misunderstood promises. The way that we communicate transparency needs to become more narrow and specific.
Perhaps the following tips would serve as a launching-point for a better transparency communication strategy:
- Don’t leverage the term’s vagueness. It’s dishonest and untransparent in itself.
- Respect peoples’ intelligence. If newly-transparent information has no value to its intended audience, then it doesn’t count.
- Let the efforts speak for themselves. If what you’re doing is truly beneficial and transparent, then people will be the judge of that. The adjective “transparent” is an earned one, not a self-appointed one.
- If possible, disclose relationships. This seemed to be one of the biggest facets of transparency, and one that should be embraced whenever possible.
- Emphasize the increments. Be sure to emphasize that acts are merely steps towards becoming more transparent. The mere effort will be respected enough.
If you respect peoples’ intelligence and be clear about what you’re offering, people will be less likely to hold you to a higher ground than you intended. Because if there’s anything that the great Paul Arden has taught the world, it’s this: Don’t promise more than you can deliver.
Linked in this Article
- Linking Trust and Transparency – Institute for Public Relations – By Frank Ovaitt
- The paradox of expectations – Seth’s Blog – By Seth Godin
- Transparency as a PR Principle, Not a Tactic - PBS MediaShift - By Mark Hannah
- How Much Transparency Is Too Much? – Spin Sucks – By Gini Dietrich
- Impartiality: The Foxification of news – The Economist
- An experiment in opening up the Guardian’s news coverage – Inside The Guardian Blog
- Disclosure and transparency: It’s PR 101 – NevilleHobson.com – By Neville Hobson
- Obama Admin PR Flacks Blocking the Public’s Right to Know – Sunlight Foundation – By Gabriela Schneider
- A More Accurate, Transparent Klout Score – The Official Klout Blog – By Ash Rust
- Paid Tweets are a Gray Area for Athletes and Celebrities – By Darren Rovell – CNBC SportsBiz
- It’s Not How Good You Are, Its How Good You Want to Be: The World’s Best Selling Book – By Paul Arden