«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
In this paper, an analysis of transparency has been undertaken through three main methods. The first was a review of foundational literature on transparency, not just in public relations but in business, political science, and other fields as well. The second was a review of specific cases wherein (1) transparency went too far and upset the mutual benefits equilibrium between an organization and its stakeholders or (2) some other problem occurred when attempts at openness did not unfold according to the ideal conceptions of transparency. The final mode of investigation came through in-depth interviews with nine senior professionals in public relations and business consulting to seek their thoughts on the topic and particularly to probe for actual experiences with the implementation of transparent communication. These interviews generated several more specific examples where the basic principles of transparency were challenged by practical realities and the weight of competing moral dilemmas.
The examination of this issue has led to our proposal of a new term for those communication situations wherein honesty is critical but where total transparency would not mutually benefit organizations or their stakeholders. The new term is not intended to be a new or replacement theory because we concur that the theory of transparency is one of the critical foundations of ethical public relations. Rather, this new addendum is what may be called a corollary—or, in this case, the translucency corollary. A corollary follows from an existing 873 proposition (datasegment.com, 2010), so the term fits here because it expands, rather than replaces, the existing transparency theory. This will be explained further below.
Theoretical Framework With the term transparency bantered around considerably today, it is easy to jump into the discussion; but the more difficult task is to dissect what transparency really means. Does transparency entail full disclosure of all information to all people at all times from every organization? Does transparency mean complete honesty and accuracy in information that should be disclosed? If so, what information should be disclosed and how or when that disclosure should take place? How are we to discern those conditions and boundaries?
Simply defined, transparency entails “openness,” or honest and readily accessible information coming particularly from business and government entities (Rawlins, 2008, p. 6).
Florini (2000) noted that “Transparency is the opposite of secrecy. Secrecy means deliberately hiding your actions; transparency means deliberately revealing them” (p. 13). Holzner and Holzner (2006) said that although it would be a mistake to equate transparency with democracy, the concept of transparency arose out of early democratic movements toward an “open society,” and, in today’s Internet era, pressures for transparency are not just American but global. They described transparency as “the social value of open, public, and/or individual access to information held and disclosed by centers of authority (p. 13). Lord (2006) similarly viewed the connection between transparency and those in power. She defined the concept as “a condition in which information about the priorities, intentions, capabilities, and behavior of powerful organizations is widely available to the global public … a condition of openness enhanced by any mechanism that discloses and disseminates information such as a free press, open government hearings, mobile phones, commercial satellite imagery, or reporting requirements in international regimes” (p. 5).
If transparency is equivalent to openness and honesty, it seems inadvisable to argue against this moral imperative. Indeed, in the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer (2010), “transparent and honest practices” was listed by respondents worldwide as the most important factor in organizational reputation—more critical than high quality products or services, fair prices, the way an institution treats its employees, its innovation and leadership, and its annual revenues or financial returns (p. 6). Furthermore, two-thirds of the respondents indicated that an organization needs to communicate information to them at least three to six times before they will “believe that the information is likely true” (p. 7). This indicates not only a widespread desire for open and transparent communication but also the need for that information to be disseminated in a continual flow. As Tapscott and Ticoll (2003) explained, “in a world where trust is in deficit [all stakeholders in society] have seized the tools at their disposal to shed the bright lights of transparency on the corporation like never before” (p. 10).
The world of social media exponentially increases the impetus for transparency. The Internet spreads information instantaneously to every region of the globe. Web sites, the collective actions of e-mailers and bloggers, videos posted on YouTube or other viral sites, tweeting and texting, and all other forms of real-time interactions expose thoughts and behaviors in historically unprecedented ways. All of this instant genuflection expands the information flow and renders it virtually impossible for any individual or organization to withhold information even when they would desire to do so. As Gower (2006) wrote, the Internet “has fostered a constant expectation of access (p. 92). Lord (2006) added that the Internet promises the potential for equalizing influence between organizations and individuals. “In an age of transparency, any 874 organization or individual that can command broad attention and support has the potential... to influence the relationship between people and information. Groups can marshal evidence and persuade people to change their minds,” she said. “They can influence what people think is right or good and what sorts of behavior are appropriate” (p. 116). Because of this expanded openness through social information exchange and its potential outcomes, the idea of transparency has countless advocates, or “transparency optimists,” as Lord (2006, p. 13) calls them.
Among the advocates for transparency are many scholars and practitioners in public relations. This should not be surprising, because long before the term transparency became a recent buzzword the public relations industry was, to some extent, advocating for open, honest communication between organizations and their various publics. Early in the 20th century, public relations advisor Ivy Lee developed a “new policy of information,” declaring that his firm would not be a “secret press bureau” but would disseminate information in a factual, accurate manner (Bernays, 1988, p. 20). More recently, Newsom et al. (2007) characterized the more traditional imperatives of public relations: “The [public relations] practitioner... distributes information that enables the institution’s publics to understand its policies” (p. 2), dealing “with reality, not false fronts” (p. 3). This means, the authors added, that “[public relations] practitioners should never lie to the news media, either outright or by implication” (p. 3). While not specifically mentioning transparency, the intent of the authors reflected what is generally believed among public relations scholars—that it is not ethical for public relations practitioners to hide or obfuscate communication on behalf of their organizations.
In the past five years, the public relations industry has addressed the expanding concept of transparency—sometimes substituting the term with the word openness (Rawlins, 2008). One of the industry’s strategic management publications, The Strategist (2005), for example, reported a study which concentrated on employee communication alone, but nevertheless indicated that employees prefer open and honest exchange of information, whether it is positive or negative.
Last year, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) added a provision to its code of ethics that censures “pay for play.” This is a tactic that, as PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards chair Robert Frause explained, “Occurs when professionals make undisclosed payments to journalists or media companies to publish or broadcast a client’s story, or when professionals allow placement of stories that appear to be earned media where compensation was provided in exchange for publication or broadcast” (PR Tactics, 2009, p. 1).
In a specific attempt to encourage communication transparency, PRSA’s new provision states that practitioners must fully disclose any such activities that result in editorial coverage.
A few public relations scholars have connected transparency with organizational trust.
Gower (2006) reported that “corporate transparency is seen as a deterrent to illegal or unethical behavior” (p. 92). Therefore, “embracing the concept of transparency improves a company’s reputation and helps restore trust” (p. 92). In an article focusing on stakeholder relationships, Jahansoozi (2006) noted that when trust in organizations declines due to crises or misbehaviors, that trust can be repaired with efforts of transparency that accept organizational accountability and promote cooperation with stakeholders. Rawlins (2008) explained that crises involving companies like Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur Anderson “resulted in a flood of demands for more transparency to restore trust in corporate America” (p. 2). And, he added, “To increase trust, organizations must be more open and transparent” (p. 1).
Rawlins (2008) offered a definition of transparency that highlighted the societal desires for openness. He described transparency as “the deliberate attempt to make available all legally releasable information—whether positive or negative in nature—in a manner that is accurate, 875 timely, balanced, and unequivocal, for the purpose of enhancing the reasoning ability of publics and holding organizations accountable for their actions, policies, and practices” (p. 7). Such a definition suggests that attempts to make all “legally releasable information” available to are generally driven not by organizations which may automatically desire to release the information but by stakeholders representing broader societal virtues and holding the organizations accountable to those virtues. Still, despite these societal mandates for openness, organizations, and corporations in particular, are generally reluctant to disclose information (Fung et al., 2007).
There is constant tension between the goals of society and of specific corporations operating within that society towards information and its dissemination. Lord (2006) explained this distinction between voluntary transparency, where organizations see the benefit of completely disclosing information, and involuntary or forced transparency, where society imposes the release of information through specific “investigative reporting by the global media or reports by NGOs” (p. 17) or through any one of the expanding social media outlets.
Sometimes when organizations do not satisfy societal expectations of transparency, governments create legislation to fulfill these informational needs. In this regard, Fung et al.
(2007) characterized transparency as “mandated public disclosure by corporations or other private or public organizations of standardized, comparable, and disaggregated information regarding specific products or practices to further a defined public purpose” (p. 6). 95 They recounted several instances where governments have legislated what they call “targeted transparency” to protect segments of society from some form of potential harm (p. 2). After the deadly chemical accident in Bhopal, India, in the 1980s, the United States government required that manufacturers report every toxic pollutant released by each of their plants. Legislation passed in 1990 compelled food producers to include ingredient listings on packaging to inform consumers about potentially harmful levels of fat, sugar, and other nutrients. In 1996, three years after microbes invaded the water system of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, killing 110 residents and sickening 400,000 more, municipalities were mandated to start informing citizens of contaminants in their water supplies. And the list goes on (Fung et al., 2007).
Given examples of imposed transparency like these, it may be easy to conclude that organizations are simply being recalcitrant and thus such government action is necessary to protect society. As Lessig (2009) asked, “How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious” (p. 1). However, Lord (2006) argued that such simple judgments and frameworks are hallmarks of the transparency optimists. They examine all of the reasons why transparency is needed in society while simplifying or ignoring the complexities of transparency and possible reasons or situations when transparency may not be advisable. And Lessig (2009) added, “I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse” (p. 1).
Perhaps, then, rather than simply dismissing organizations as recalcitrant and selfserving, the question needs to be asked: Why might it be important to withhold information under certain circumstances? Certainly, as already shown, there are times when corporations, in particular, purposefully stonewall information at the expense of stakeholders who are negatively affected by subsequent corporate actions. Certainly, there are many observers who argue that it is the nature of corporations to want to work in secrecy. Yet, perhaps something more is going on related to this more complex nature of transparency. In fact, some authors argue that 95 The authors listed these characteristics of transparency as bullet points, but the wording is verbatim.
876 transparency is not as simple as being open and accurate in information. A search of scholarly and practical literature reveals circumstances in which any organization has a legitimate and moral responsibility to withhold information (Lord, 2006; Dezenhall, 2009; Lessig, 2009).