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David Berlind has a great piece on transparency over at ZDNet.

Wherever there has been a gross injustice because of a broken system, the muttering “transparency” usually isn’t far behind.  If we can go behind the scenes, we’ll spot trouble before it happens, and the actors–knowing we’re there–will all behave better. David Berlind, ZDNet, Jan 18, 2005

First, he deserves applause for recognizing transparency as a major issue for all journalists. Equally, PR practitioners at every level need to recognize that transparency is priority in every aspect of our business. From providing spokespeople through billing and into measurement. An understanding and implementation of transparency (which is rooted in ethics) would have enabled us to avoid the Ketchum issue.

Second, David makes some great points with regard to the application of technology to improving transparency – and provides a salient example. But moreover he nails it in that we have to earn our reputation and then protect it through our actions. There is no fine-line here. Just a solid yellow. Cross it – become opaque – and integrity goes out the window. David provides a great example of this in the story.

At the end of the interview with UserLand CEO Scott Young, he offered to send me a book by Rogers Cadenhead on how to use Radio UserLand.  I accepted the offer.  It’s not unusual for vendors to provide journalists who are reviewing their technology with additional documentation.  But, as I played the recording back and thought of how transparency was in effect, I couldn’t be absolutely certain that all members of ZDNet’s audience would see it the same way.  I’m not going to send my address to Scott Young and, instead, if I decide that I need the book, I will pay the $24 charge for it with my own company’s money.  Already, transparency is having its effect.

Technology can help close the credibility gap – for media and PR – but only if underpinned by transparency and a solid code of ethics.

Transparency is as a major issue for tech communications which are largely opaque (at best). For a long time the media published endless diatribe from a major customer of a major Linux vendor without ever revealing that that the CEO of that company also held a large amount of stock in said Linux vendor. Just a few weeks ago a read an article about a telco equipment vendor switching server suppliers without any reference to the fact that that vendor had a competing technology to its incumbent server supplier. Not only should it have been switching but it shouldn’t have even been using that suppliers technology in the first place.

Before technology can address the transparency issue – or drive us towards more of it – we need to rethink practices and resources – and educate on ethics – which should be a priority for every PR department and agency. We should not assume that people arrive with a clear understanding of ethics, the policies and practices that underpin them and the resulting transperancy. Behavior needs to be taught.

The stuff that seems to be a nuisance – producing transcripts following keynotes, setting up webcasts, posting notes from interviews – need to become embodied in the day-to-day practice of communications. And communications teams need to be resourced to do it. Action for Communicators – resource the little stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself. And, get on with the little stuff. Post those transcripts when the article hits. Get them out within an hour or so of a keynote.

Jay Rosen recently called for CBS to start posting transcripts from its interviews – a great first step to restoring credibility post-Rathergate.

And, never provide a non-employee spokesperson without revealing if that person is paid and the position they support. Maybe companies should start publishing a paid spokesperson (and industry analyst) registry on their sites? Maybe all publicly funded campaigns should have the same registry? Maybe our industry bodies could maintain that registry?

We all have a right to engage in promotion and propaganda. But if we do so without transparency then we cross an ethical line that will ultimately harm us. Not just you, but all of us. And the very ideas that we seek to promote will be undermined. Steve Hayden said it well in a piece in Fortune on blogging:

“If you fudge or lie on a blog, you are biting the karmic weenie. The negative reaction will be so great that, whatever your intention was, it will be overwhelmed and crushed like a bug.”Steve Hayden, vice chairman, Ogilvy & Mather

So, wrapping-up, to steal a line – and edit it – from Jay, after trust me journalism, communications and spokespeople must come openness..

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