Transparency? It’s Not Clear At All.

May 6, 2013

By: Nick Andrews

Is there no end to our appetite for information? Seemingly not.

The consequence of so much information swilling around, available 24/7 at a push of a couple of buttons, is not that we are sated. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The more we know, the more we want to know and, crucially, the more we think we could know if only people would tell us. It is this uneasy sense that we are not being told something, coupled with a growing sense that we have the right to know, which in my view drives the on-going demand for transparency from our clients and, by association, ourselves.

Companies, governments, civil society are required to be ‘transparent,’ at all times. This seems reasonable enough until one realises that in many cases, and for many organisations, it is not about opening up to the scrutiny of others per se, but more about proving that nothing is being hidden. This puts many in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative. It is a communications Catch 22, like trying to prove that you are not a criminal or not insane, or a sportsman trying to prove that he or she has never taken drugs. In the face of consistent, overweening suspicion, it is rarely possible to be transparent enough.

How does a pharmaceutical company prove, to the satisfaction of everyone that it has not hidden any trial results, or a chemical company that they have not stashed toxic chemicals away, somewhere in the world? They can deny it, of course, but there will always those who say, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they.”, or the one bad apple which is used as an indicator of generally rotten state (step forward Mr Armstrong…).

What, therefore, should companies do as they try to manage their reputations in an increasingly sceptical and increasingly informed and interconnected world? At base this is an issue of trust caused by authenticity; the willingness of people to give an organisation the benefit of the doubt because they have a robust relationship which matches their (high) expectations with experiences. This cannot be a quick fix. It demands a long-term perspective and an investment which touches all parts of the organisation, from product development to service delivery, and from communications to social programmes.

Total transparency may be an unrealistic (and even undesirable) goal, but the willingness to invest in dialogue and relationship development which this might drive is both valuable and necessary.

Nick Andrews is FleishmanHillard’s Reputation Practice Leader for EMEA. You can reach him at nick.andrews@fleishmaneurope.com.