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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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Abstract

Rawlins (2008) advocated “transparency through every aspect of corporate communications” (p. 2) that embraces open, authentic communication of organizational successes and failures; facilitates ongoing discussion; and relinquishes a seemingly incessant institutional drive to maintain the image of perfection. Transparency is a critical addition to the literature and practice of ethical public relations, as some entities have suffered major damages or have even been forced to close after deceptive withholding of information that was vital to stakeholders. The purpose of this paper, however, is to show that the term transparency has been so broadly interpreted, invoked, and abused that it risks losing its intent of open communication that enhances dialogue and benefits both organizations and society. The paper argues that the term transparency has two flaws that need to be clarified to strengthen its usage in public relations: (1) Transparency increasingly is interpreted as being completely open at all times, but the authors argue there are times when it is in the best legal and logistical interest of the entity to not disclose, and in such times this is the most ethical stance for both the organization and its stakeholders; and (2) Entities increasingly are spouting self-proclaimed “transparent” communication, when investigation reveals that those claims are smokescreens to deflect an actual disdain for transparency.





Balkin (1999) identified categories of informational, participatory, and accountability transparency. Others have linked transparency with trust (Jahansoozi, 2006; Gower, 2006).

While useful, these linkages and categories do not go far enough in guiding entities toward ethical functioning in today’s society. This paper therefore muses over the questions: Under what specific circumstances is transparent communication necessary and beneficial? When is it better to not disclose information, even given today’s expectations of instant, complete messaging? In which situations does absolute transparency actually harm stakeholders and societies? The paper argues that in these circumstances, a stance of translucency may be more appropriate than actual transparency. Translucency occurs when light passes through a medium, such as frosted glass, in sufficient quantity that the viewer can discern the outline of objects and see in which direction they are moving but they are not completely visible to the eye. With this paper providing parameters under which translucent communication must take place—and why—organizations can offer an outline and shape that will ethically inform, guide, and engage key publics, even when full disclosure is not the best option.

871

Introduction

In 2009, the United States government encountered a dilemma over the concept of transparency. Members of Congress joined the increasing public demand for the release of photographs that would detail alleged abuses during the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S.

military personnel in Baghdad. Newly elected president Barack Obama and his administration had to decide to what extent releasing the photos would jeopardize future interrogative needs while at the same time risking greater deterioration of the nation’s reputation around the world.

This dilemma was reported by CNN.com as follows:

The notorious Abu Ghraib photos showing U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees were used by jihadists and cost "a lot of American lives," says Brig. Gen. David Quantock. That's why the head of detainee operations in Iraq agrees with President Obama that more photos of alleged detainee abuse shouldn't be released, despite promises of transparency[from the new U.S. administration] (CNN, May 14, 2009—italics added).

Today, we live in what Holzner and Holzner (2006) called “the open society” (p. 2), a global movement toward “the rise of transparency” (p. 5). Transparency increasingly is championed in democratic society and particularly in the public relations field (Rawlins, 2008).

It is easy to support the growing need for more openness and honesty in institutional and individual communication. The public relations debacles of Enron’s “cooked books,” (Calkins, 2004), the accounting fraud of Worldcom (Romar & Calkins, 2006), Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme (Keith, 2009), the Tiger Woods fiasco, and many other cases have clearly shown the devastating consequences of individual and corporate deceit. Therefore, clarion calls for transparency are critical. “The message to CEOs is that integrity is very important,” said former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, “and that the falsification of … any documentation that relates to your company is a serious matter" (Keith, 2009, p. 1). Public relations professionals are encouraged to serve as the moral conscience of the organizations they serve, and the few treatises advocating transparency have been vital additions to the field’s literature and guidelines for ethical practice.

On the other hand, the Abu Ghraib example above is just one of many which indicate that the need for transparency is not beyond debate. It could be argued that transparency has become so prevalent and so frequently discussed that it has entered the realm of “latest buzzword” or overworked cliché. Early in 2010, Lake Superior State University included the term in its 35th annual listing of words that need to be banished for overuse (LSSU, 2010). More importantly, the concept has been advanced with minimal challenge to its moral basis in given circumstances or scenarios. The U.S. interrogation dilemma shows that much more thinking needs to be devoted to the transparency issue, not to determine whether it is appropriate but rather when it is appropriate and when it may not fully satisfy the demands of a situation.

Dezenhall (2009) addressed the moral dilemma behind the term transparency. He said, “The thirst for transparency and full-disclosure is warranted. We rightly want to know what’s under the fingernails of those who have power over our lives. The problem is that transparency has become the insipid new shibboleth for all that is good and noble—a mere bit of corporate and political theater.” (p. 1). Lord (2006) also argued that, fundamentally, transparency is “morally right” (p. 21), but explained why it should not continue to be advocated for all

circumstances without question:

Comprehensive analyses about the impact of greater transparency are relatively rare.

Analysts mention transparency as part of a solution to particular problems…but do not 872 take a broader perspective. The result is that discussions of transparency are often onesided and are focused on its positive effects with little, if any, discussion of costs. Such analyses are not necessarily wrong, but they are incomplete. The cumulative effect is an overwhelming focus on the positive aspects of transparency (p. 16).

The purpose of this paper, then, is to foster additional conversation around the definitions and implications of transparency. As Dezenhall (2009) wrote, “Let us consider the rhetoric of...

William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. Throughout the narrative, the cunning Sicilian, Vizzini, shouts ‘Inconceivable!’ whenever a plot doesn’t work out. His sidekick … Inigo Montoya, finally counsels Vizzini: ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means’" (p. 1). Perhaps the same could be said of the word transparency. The authors of this paper believe that the term suffers from two basic mischaracterizations. First, it seems that transparency increasingly is interpreted as being completely open at all times and in all communication situations. We believe, however, that there are times when it is in the legal and logistical interest of the entity to not disclose information, and in these times not disclosing is the most ethical stance for both the organization and its stakeholders. Second, and more alarming, is when organizations proclaim their own “transparent communication” behaviors only to have it revealed through subsequent external investigation that those claims are simply smokescreens to deflect a complete and purposeful eschewing of transparency.

Some conversation on the topic has already begun. Jahansoozi (2006), Gower (2006), and Rawlins (2008), for example, all have correlated transparency with stakeholder trust, and Balkin (1999) identified dimensions of transparency.While these treatises help to enlighten the concept, more examination and discussion is needed in order to adequately guide entities toward more ethical communication. This paper, therefore, raises questions that perhaps have not been asked before, questions particularly related to the daily decisions that public relations people face concerning this issue. For example, when is transparent communication necessary and beneficial? Are there inherent limitations to transparency? If so, under what circumstances would it be better to not disclose information, even given today’s expectations of instant and complete messaging? Perhaps most importantly, in which situations is it possible that absolute transparency could actually harm stakeholders and the societies in which organizations operate?



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