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Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2007

Not Everyone Can Withstand Transparency

By Robert Gorell
August 14th, 2007

blurred by transparencyCorporate transparency is fickle these days. Of course, companies are still expected to be transparent with shareholders. But interactive media have changed the game, or at least distorted it. The mass marketing days are over and, today, public relations happens in real time.

In a mass market world, it’s easy to hide behind corporate spin because, hey, everyone’s doing it. In a world driven by interactive media and niche markets, though, not everyone can withstand transparency.

The Buzz Bin‘s Geoff Livingston wrote a piece called “Astroturfing on the Dark Side of the Moon,” highlighting a few cases of corporate blogging-gone-wrong and the ongoing debate over what should be considered “astroturfing” (define). The article shows how the lines of corporate transparency are now gossamer-thin.

But why? Have business ethics become blurry and situational?

Whether they like it or not, companies are being thrown into a world of transparency. Perhaps what we’re witnessing in these cases of so-called “astroturfing” isn’t so much a lack of personal ethics as it is the systemic floundering of those whose product, business model, policies and/or public relations channels can’t withstand transparency.

I asked a few of our favorite blogging, PR, and word-of-mouth experts to share some thoughts on transparency*. David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR, was first to respond…

I think it is much better for organizations to establish policies about all communications (including verbal communication, e-mail, participation in chat rooms, and the like) rather than to focus on a new medium (blogs). I feel strongly that a company can and should set policy about sexual harassment, disparaging the competition, and revealing company secrets, but there’s no reason to have different policies for different media, such as blogs.

All sorts of unethical practices go on in the blogosphere, and you must be certain to hold yourself and your organization accountable for your actions as a blogger. Some organizations have gotten caught using unethical practices on their blogs and have done great harm to their corporate reputations. Some things I feel strongly about:

Transparency — You should never pretend to be someone you are not. For example, don’t use another name to submit a comment on any blog (your own or somebody else’s), and don’t create a blog that talks about your company without disclosing that someone from your company is behind it.

Privacy — Unless you’ve been given permission, don’t blog about something that was disclosed to you. For example, don’t post material from an e-mail someone sent you unless you have permission.

Disclosure — It is important to disclose anything that people might consider a conflict of interest in a blog post. For example, if I write in my blog about a product from a company that is one of my consulting clients, I put a sentence at the end disclosing my relationship with the company.

Truthfulness — Don’t lie. For example, never make up a customer story just because it makes good blog content.

Andy Sernovitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking, kept it even simpler with this response via smartphone:

Word of mouth/blog ethics aren’t hard. It’s about:
1. Always being truthful
2. Common sense
3. Good taste

Blogger extraordinaire Chris Garrett concurs, insisting that:

If you keep your customer or audience needs in mind and have the best intentions, the rest ought to follow quite naturally. People mainly get into trouble when their intention is to hide or deceive.

Maybe the lines aren’t blurring because our ethics are becoming more situational; they only appear situational because we’re being forced to respond in the moment. In such an environment, the more PR “strategy” one has, the more phony they appear. People need to separate the argument about “what is ethical” from “what is stupid or ill-advised”.

There are no shades of transparency. Transparency cannot be opaque to any degree, regardless of how we spin it. Customers are simply too smart, and even the slow ones among us have the power of Google at their fingertips. (Try hiding from that!) Transparency isn’t about sharing trade secrets, it’s about engaging with people who have opinions about your brand. Treat your corporate blog like an infomercial and it will fail.

What those who quote Marshall McLuhan without having read him may not realize that “the medium is the message” was a play on words. It’s a few puns deep, actually.

First, McLuhan was insisting that the medium was the “mess-age”; that media, particularly new media, make a mess of the age in which they emerge. His secondary, lesser-known pun was that “the medium is the massage“; that emerging media, although poorly understood, have a massaging, drug-like affect on how we perceive, process, and collectively distort information. For McLuhan, television, the “new media” of his day, was the massage of the mass-age. Along with the message, the massage is explained in McLuhan’s concise book. The thing is, we no longer live in the mass age.

Just before he died, McLuhan looked beyond the mass age to what he called The Global Village. In this last book, he not only foreshadowed the likes of blogging and Facebook, but he assures us that we wouldn’t understand the “global village” once we arrived.

Meanwhile, back in today’s global “Web 2.0″ village, McLuhan remains best known for his cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The good news for McLuhan, though, is that not only does the YouTube clip prove that the “global village” exists, it gives an example of someone who can’t withstand transparency.

[*Author's Note: I'll update this article as other bloggers respond. Stay tuned... ]

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Comments (9)

  1. Thanks for the hat tip, Robert. We’ve decided to recommend that all of our clients operate using crisis communications principles. These include honest, factual updates that are oriented towards informing the public/community. The community doesn’t tolerate spin in such situations.

    Now that the media corps and new media outlets have started covering similar topics, companies have very little choice, but to give them what they want. Honest, factual updates meant to provide information the community cares about, not spin. Boy, this post could cause a book!

  2. I’ve thinking about the topic of transparency lately, along with its companion authenticity, and they are thorny issues. Thanks for the further thinking material to both Robert and Geoff.

    But thanks even more for the Annie Hall clip… an excellent example of how the smart use of online video and popular culture can be used to accentuate a persuasive point. It’s also a testament to how important is will be to expand the fair use boundaries of copyright law.

  3. Great piece Robert.

    Another thought. You need to pass “the Mom test.” If your mother would say it is wrong, it probably is.

    Cheers, David

  4. [...] do you think?  Can Mattel withstand transparency? Technorati Tags: Marketing to women, mattel, public apology, Public Relations, recall, toys, [...]

  5. [...] Meerman Scott recently defined transparency by saying that you should never pretend to be someone you are not. His examples involve anonymous [...]

  6. [...] In turn, blogs and other social media forms will move towards hybridized media formats to seize more readers and command larger [...]

  7. [...] Not Everyone Can Withstand Transparency [...]

  8. [...] from potential franchisees were being found out anyhow.  Social media and forums was already stripping away some of the barriers to [...]

  9. McLuhan really is under appreciated these days. When Wired rolled out, they made him their patron saint, but thats as big as he got on the web.

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