The Importance of Transparency
Several months ago, Wired ran a great article on how companies are embracing radical transparency as a new approach to public relations. The list wasn't just a bunch of hip new Web 2.0 companies either. Microsoft operates Channel 9 as a way to give folks a glimpse into how their software business really works. JetBlue's CEO posted a video apology on YouTube that was blunt and honest. This is spilling over into the realm of politics as an increasing number of elected officials participate in the world of blogging. Welcome to glasnost, American-style.
So where was the impetus to shed the carefully crafted image and start telling it like it really is? The first incidence of radical transparency gone well that I can remember is from the E. coli outbreak at Jack-in-the-Box in 1993, a scandal that could have surely tanked the company or at least left it with nasty scars. In a move that would have made most attorneys suffer a cardiac event, they immediately took the blame for the 500 plus cases of illness, settled lawsuits from customers, franchises and shareholders, adopted strict new food-handling procedures, and even sent the president of the company to most of the mediation hearings. All of this was honest and forthright with a significant amount of public disclosure. In less than 5 years they went from being a laughingstock to the 5th biggest burger chain in the nation.
Of course, attempts at transparency can backfire horribly as well. It's almost always caused by only pretending to be transparent and being caught in your fraud. Consider what happened to Jobster. The CEO claimed that rumors of layoffs had no substance to them. A week later, he fired 40% of their staff. The reaction from the online world was swift and merciless, pounding the CEO for outright lying to cover his behind. If he'd have stepped up and said "yeah, we're not doing so well and have to hand out pink slips," the incident would have been forgotten.
We're also starting to see open source politics in action. Here in our own backyard, legislators are regular participants in the world of blogs with sites for both parties in both houses as well as a few for individuals. Normally, we'd only see a legislator through the news stories in the papers which virtually guarantees that we won't hear much about a lot of them. Throw a blog into the mix, however, and we learn more about where they're coming from and even see a bit of their silly side. (Hey Craig Frank? The skateboarding video is awesome.) This puts a human face on a game usually intent on removing the human part of the opposition. It's also produced a thriving community or two where non-elected officials, media personalities and even regular Joes can add something to the conversation.
By being transparent, you build trust. This trust (be it with readers, constituents or customers) only grows with openness and honesty. In the online realm, that means encouraging discussion by using a minimum of moderation and letting the community take its natural course. Yes, you're likely to suffer a few broken bones and maybe a black eye, but that's nothing compared to the public stoning you'd get for shutting down comments, banning opposing sides or trying to cover your online tracks. I know I have plenty of my own foolish and rash statements lurking out there on the Interweb, but trying to bury or cover them simply draws more attention to them and shows that I'm trying to control the discussion in unethical ways.
Witness the fracas that erupted when Dell tried to get Consumerist to take down some less-than-complimentary things said by a former employee. It was a pretty mild-mannered request that ended up blowing up in their faces since it looked like they were trying to hide something. It didn't take long before they issued a very public apology and admitting that they "blew it" and offered some tips of their own to ensure you always get the best price on a new Dell. The about face and promises to simplify their pricing structure highlighted how to do things the wrong way and how to correct course when that happens.
Where you should be especially concerned is in the case of "black boxes" where you don't know what's going on. It's akin to a toaster where you never see what happens to the bread; you have a pretty good idea that it heats up to make toast, but you can't actually verify it. You end up having to choose to trust the maker that it does what you think it does. This lack of transparency is disturbing because it most often comes from those with something to hide. Consider how Diebold will not allow independent certification of its voting equipment, spammers forge email headers and political parties will often hold closed-door meetings.
By hiding so many of the inner workings of the process and making their claims unverifiable, we're naturally led to doubt and assuming the worst. Dan Gilmour said it best: "[S]kepticism should be your rule. Without transparency, it's best to assume you're being spun. Because you probably are." Well said, Mr. Gilmour. May we all aspire to use transparency as our friend.