A Friend's Take on Transparency

I recently re-tweeted something from Todd Defren about a stark example of a lack of transparency in the use of Twitter by a public relations agency.

[RT @TDefren: Shouldn't "Seth the Blogger Guy" have *disclosed* that he worked at Fleishman? http://tinyurl.com/narrze http://myloc.me/DGYQ

A friend of mine who works in a senior corporate communications role for a large company felt the tweet deserved a reaction. He sent me an email I thought was worth sharing largely because it takes a contrarian view to received ideas about transparency. He said he was okay with me posting it here (unedited) anonymously. So here are the thoughts of one experienced corporate communications practitioner who, I must say, does delight in the role of iconoclast.

In my view, "transparency" in corporate communication, while a noble ideal, is just that, an ideal.  It's like democracy or green living, the reality is much thornier and more complex in practise (or is it practice?)  

Having kicked around the net for awhile now, personally and professionally, I have come to the conclusion that an unrealistic definition of transparency is placed on most companies.  In my view it is rooted in a stereotypical belief that corporate entities are essentially run by very bad people and a company is always guilty until proven innocent.   There is this odd double standard attached to companies participating in net-based communications, that somehow they are required to always declare the name behind the username, whereas virtually nobody else is. Who exactly is canuck1975 and who cares? -- unless he works for the man.  Activists and critics and trolls run about the internet with relative impunity, because the David and Goliath narrative always favours David, even if he's stretching the facts, ignoring those that don't suit him, and generally whooping it up with no constraints.  Sure it's exciting, but it doesn't make for valuable information.    

I was thinking about transparency in the context of your tweet and perhaps they did make a mistake, but then I got wondering:  did they choose to make it?  No one's that naive anymore... more than one corporate representative has been unmasked at this late date.  It's not like the risk was was unknown.  Although if an SVP at an agency didn't know about it, tough luck, Charlie, and enjoy the account review.

In this instance perhaps it was a phased approach, getting the message out in phase one trumping concerns about the means by which it was done and the revelation of that means, if it even ever was revealed.   If the information was factual, valuable and verifiable, I suggest the how and who are less important.  The net is a rough and tumble place, a reality often considered in passing, if at all.  Declaring "I am the company" or "I work for the company" runs the risk of shifting the focus from the message to the messenger.  Immediately teeth are gnashed and cries of "Spin!" et al displace reaction to the content and a big old flame war erupts where everybody can have some fun.   

Consider it this way.  You're in a meeting with your worst enemy, who is presenting an idea, that is, in fact, a damn good idea.  How many of us, in all honesty, aren't spending at least a little time looking to poke holes in that  and bring the worst enemy's house of cards tumbling down?  Now imagine the same idea is presented by a respected colleague and the consensus view is it's an excellent idea.   Then the respected colleague acknowledges your worst enemy as the brains behind the presentation.  Well, you might be a bit rueful, but there'll be no denying the quality of the thought, even if it surprisingly did come from that bloviating idiot. 

 Let the content be judged, I say.  So if that requires flying beneath the radar, that may be a choice that needs to be made in an environment where hyperbole and flame wars are often the best show in town.  There's no point executing a brilliant ground strategy if the battle's being fought on the bounding main.   Perhaps they actually made a wise decision to divide the process into two parts by getting the information they wanted out there and then, in the second part, dealing with the fall out from the revelation of who provided it. 

Which brings me to my second point:  web 'management', the new inside baseball.  Sure, as practitioners, we have an interest in the drama and the strategy, and certainly an activists or critics of the organization in question could feast on this revelation like it's steak.  But does the target audience for the information really care about the who and how of how it got there?  I suspect if you ranked the criteria for credibility, using the 80-10-10 rule to divide the audience, the factuality, verifiability and value of the information would trump who wrote it.  That's not to say strategies don't shape perceptions, they do.  But I don't believe it's a given that the outcome in this specific case means anybody's going to wear an indelible stain in the view of the audiences that count.   Then 10 and the 10 may remember, but the focus of the 80 is very likely elsewhere. 

I wouldn't recommend it in every instance, nor am I counselling the same recklessness and subterfuge that often accompanies the online antics of the loudest voices on the message board.  But on the other hand, lets get real:  the shock of finding a company or its consultant behind a web mask isn't what it used to be.    If the information is factual, valuable and verifiable, and the climate irrationally dismissive of certain sources, sometimes perhaps a case can be made for taking your lumps if you get caught doing what almost every other demographic on the web is doing from time to time as well.   If you've got the defence of substance, versus spin, it could be an imperfect strategy worth executing.  The dogs bark, but the caravan passes by.  The question that has to answered is whether anyone will remembering the barking or what caused it. 

I'd like to know your thoughts because it's a weird thing to take such a contrary view to the easy, perhaps reflexive, mantra of transparency and what that means.  If you ask me the web is translucent at best and that goes for the lot of us, spinmeister, client, activist, geek and basement dweller.

I'll discuss this over lunch with my friend . . . but I would love to bring him your comments through the comment thread below. (No Facebook wall posts please . . . aggregate comments here so others can see.)

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