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Some thoughts from the road…

Transparency remains one of the banner issues for communicators and our industry. I’ve been pretty vocal on this so sorry if this is getting tiresome. But the more I read from communicators the more I wonder if there isn’t a need for a deeper and more focused dialogue on the issue – like a group of us get in a room and hash it out. David Berlind and Dan Gillmor have been speaking to the issue from both a media and PR perspective. But where are the communicators?

This got me thinking on a couple of fronts…

Is transparency an issue for communicators? The straightforward answer is YES! But it isn’t that straightforward. It’s going to require that in-house communicators sit down with their legal and finance teams – especially the security lawyers – and develop a shared view of what transparency means. The outcome might be a set of behaviors, practices and polices that really articulate what transparency means in the context of the business – a kind of playbook. Transparency runs deeper than fiduciary responsibility – it cuts to the core of an organization. So this ain’t just an issue for the lawyers, accountants or PR people. It’s as much a cultural issue as a procedural one.

At another level we need to do a whole lot about this issue immediately. Starting with the development of a common set of standards. David Berlin has a cool idea called JOTS – Journalist Online Transparency System. We might call ours PROTS – Public Relations Online Transparency System. The two should sync where at all possible.

PROTS would cover a whole range of ground. It might include protocols for using third party spokespeople. And the use of anonymous spokespeople. In this instance, transparency is greater than anonymity. In other words, say who you are, what your title is and what you are saying. Don’t hide behind the veil of “spokesperson”.

David also has some thoughts regarding the use of email. We need standards here quick.

What about posting transcripts of interviews and the like? This is one manifestation of transparency. I don’t buy the argument that we shouldn’t do this on the basis that executives say screwball things in interviews that might slip by the journalist only to be escalated with the posting of a transcript. OK, on occasions the brain does disengage from the mouth and all kinds of things come out. Maybe posting transcripts will make spokespeople think a little harder. After-all, every interview is on the record – and if you don’t want it on the record you could agree to switch the tape and transcript off. Not exactly full transparency but better than what we have today and this would allow for casual or confidential conversations to take place. In other words, conversations can take place outside of the interview.

Can technology help? Yes, but communicators will first need to resource for transparency. This is a new workload. I remember my first weeks at Nortel – there was a really impressive guy who’d been a communicator for decades. And he had big files of interviews and the like. Big files. What this taught me is the importance of “keeping the record” and archiving everything. I fear this had been largely lost on many comms teams today. Perhaps the pursuit of transparency will actually enhance institutional memory.

Imagine an RSS feed on major interviews that would provide all the information for people that are interested?

More to come on this. Please send me your thoughts. One of my questions is – do we push for our existing industry bodies to do this, or do we take it on and publish a reference doc for PRs to contribute to…?

2 Responses

  1. By David Berlind on February 8th, 2005 at 12:47 pm

    One reason I started the transparency channel in the first place is that I felt as though there were a lot of people calling for transparency, but nobody actually doing it. I’ve written recently that there are lot of people screaming bloody murder that patents shouldn’t be allowed on software. But beneath the thin veneer of the demands for change and proposals for how the problem can be fixed, nothing is being done. The people who can actually fix the system aren’t even paying attention. Nothing will get done until someone just starts to do it. The premise of my experiment is that I’m going to take some leaps of faith — like publishing e-mails — and I’m going to learn something from those leaps that molds my thinking on how transparency can really succeed. That’s the only way, if you ask me, progress will be made. Stop talking. Start doing. Make mistakes. Evolve (the thinking). Somewhere down the line, you’ll have something that’s actually working while others are still talking about it. Actions speak louder than words, my father always said.

  2. By Dwight Stickler on February 9th, 2005 at 6:15 am

    Not to make excuses for our fellow PR Practioners, but among our ranks is the corporate communications practitioner.

    This hardy soul is beholden to his/her employer. Not having the choice many times to practice transparency at the jeopardy of their livelihood.

    Undoubtedly, a “playbook” for practicing transparency in our field is a fantastic idea. In more ways the one. First, it could provide ammunition to the corporate PR representative who has to sometimes lie or mislead or lose their job.

    And it would take into account the issue of personal ethics and responsiblity. Although some PR people are “forced” to lie for their employers, they are not forced to continue working for them.

    I personally would be happy to work on this issue and suggest a wiki approach where people with a vested interest in accomplishing the project can participate openly.

    In starting this project, I have added an edit to wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_relations#Ethical_and_Social_Issues in hopes of faciliating an ongoing effort to provide PR Practitioners with a guide in understanding the importance of both discretion and disclosure

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