«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
Much of the rationale against unfettered transparency centers not on any criticism of the concept, per se, but on weighing the virtues of transparency against other societal values, such as a person’s right to privacy or the benefit of fair trade. Compromise between these virtues and transparency can be seen through government regulation and other means. For example, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) mandates that no information about a student can be made public without the student’s permission (FERPA, 2010). The Employee Privacy Act also prohibits the disclosure of personal information to third parties without consent of the employee (Employee Privacy, 2010). To preserve fair trade, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires regular release of information to investors and shareholders. However, the SEC prohibits disclosure during the quiet periods surrounding initial public offerings, as well as “insider trading”—giving information to certain individuals before public release so as to foster an advantage over other potential investors (Newsom et al., p. 186).
Even the PRSA code of ethics requires “appropriate protection of confidential and private information” and counsels against leaking “proprietary information that could adversely affect some other party” or using “confidential information from your previous employer to benefit the competitive advantage of your new employer” (cited in Wilcox & Cameron, 2009, p. 78).
Other implications of transparency move beyond legal constraints and into the more ambiguous moral realm. Lord (2006) argued that information is not neutral and that sometimes, rather than adding to social discourse or protecting citizens from organizational misbehaviors,
transparency fans the flames of mistrust and discrimination. She said:
Greater transparency is not an unmitigated good…. Greater transparency can highlight hostility and fuel vicious cycles of belligerent words and deeds. It can highlight widespread prejudice and hatred, encourage victimization of out-groups and by showing broad acceptance of such behavior without repercussions, legitimize it. Greater transparency can undermine efforts at conflict resolution and, when conflicts do break out, it can discourage intervention by third parties. Transparency sometimes can make conflicts worse (Lord, 2006, p. 3).
Transparency also has the potential to permanently damage reputation—at times, even the reputations of those it is designed to protect. Lessig (2009) described a long-standing policy by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concerning conflicts of interest between authors published in JAMA and the medical industry. This policy came about in part because, as Lessig noted, charges of failing to disclose such affiliations “is enough to stain a reputation. As with a charge of sexual harassment, the establishment of innocence does not really erase its harm (p. 1)” Because of the potential of such charges to permanently damage reputations, JAMA put into place a requirement that anyone filing a complaint with JAMA about such a potential conflict must remain silent until the complaint was investigated. Late last year, however, an individual who filed such a complaint published his charges in another journal after waiting
several months for JAMA to investigate. At that point, Lessig (2009) noted:
abandoned. Unfair complaints would have to be tolerated--as they would have to be in any similar context. The age of transparency is upon us. The need to protect the whistleblower is unquestionable--driving off even modest efforts to cushion the blows from a mistaken accusation” (p. 1).
A society that insists upon transparency also would do well to wrestle with the potential consequences of extreme information overload. What if all information were accessible to everyone at all times, from every possible source? The consequence of this could easily be a cognitive and practical nightmare for both individuals and society as a whole—ever more information piled upon people who already are overloaded by massive amounts of data. When scholars or practitioners advocate for full transparency, this factor generally has not been added into the equation. As Lord (2006) explained, “Humans often have trouble processing information and even more trouble processing large amounts of information…. Thus, even when the information we receive because of greater transparency is excellent and unbiased, we may not interpret it accurately. We may fail to recognize important information amid the ‘noise’ of constant information streams or we may fail to recognize its implications” (p. 11).
When people try to resolve these problems of information overload, they resort to their own cognitive perceptions to sift through the information. Each person does this through differing perspectives of culture, religion, personal experiences, and other factors.
Therefore, the differing perspectives between the sources of information and their recipients also can cause problems for transparency. No matter how many facts or bits of information are offered to stakeholders, the individual’s or group’s frame of reference generally remains the same. Lord (2006) stated “We form theories about the way things work and we may resist new information that does not fit our preexisting views. Though these cognitive processes help us to cope with information and form opinions, they can also lead us astray” (p. 11). Newsom (2007) used the terrorist attack on the World Trade
Center in 2001 as an example:
… when people in other countries watched the televised attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, they interpreted the events in so many different ways …. Some were told, and believed, that this was a scene created by Hollywood as propaganda, and not real. Others who did accept what they saw on television as real thought all of the people in the towers were white Americans, probably Christians and Jews and thus persecutors of members of their faith, so this was in a sense deserved and perhaps an act of divine intervention. Some Caucasians who remember that Americans leveled their cities during World War II thought perhaps it was the USAs turn to experience such a disaster. Those who resent the USA’s global leadership were not unhappy to see the giant attacked (p. 4).
Despite this potential for misinterpretation or misuse of information, there seems to be a widespread assumption that when organizations send out as much information as possible, this certainly will foster understanding and goodwill. Lord (2006), however, noted that there are circumstances in which people prefer to not have all the information that is available. As in the case of the health care debates, most citizens do not want all of the details of the deliberations— they just want a satisfactory solution to the spiraling costs and seemingly random 878 implementation of insurance coverage. Similarly, in corporations, most employees do not expect to be involved in all managerial deliberations; they just want good decisions to be made.
Instances where perhaps too much information is doled out are not hard to find. Tapscott and Ticoll (2003) noted that “few companies publish financial reports that the average investor can readily understand, even less identify and interpret critical nuggets buried in footnotes. If anything, there is too much information, presented in a confusing manner. This is opacity in the guise of transparency” (p. 16). A stark example of these attempts to confuse occurred during the litigation around the Enron debacle, at which time the company produced 12 million pages of information, according to the lead paralegal from a law firm spearheading efforts to develop a litigation support database. The paralegal reported that “The documents arrived in PDF format on hard drives with “no index and no organization” (CT Summation, 2009, p. 1). A final example of “opacity in the guise of transparency came last year when Kellogg Company gave a detailed explanation of its sudden shortage of Eggo Waffles, reporting that a rainstorm caused flooding in its Atlanta warehouse. But Kellogg’s failed to state that the warehouse was first ordered closed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture due to possible food contamination.
“In this case,” said PR News blogger Scott Van Camp (2009), “Kellogg and Eggo got a pass” when neither the traditional nor social media challenged the explanation (p. 2).
In another example, in 2009, a teller at national banking chain insisted that a would-be robber show his weapon. When the intruder started to run away, the teller chased him down, tackled him, and called the local police. The teller was then fired for placing everyone in the lobby in danger. When questioned about the incident, the bank’s spokesperson stated that the “highest priority is to protect the safety of our employees and our clients.... Our policies and procedures are in the best interest of public safety and they're consistent with industry standards” (CNN, 2009, p. 1). Certainly an industry policy that prioritizes lives over money is admirable, but to reveal the policy in the national media could serve as a “transparent” invitation to all potential robbers to enter a bank and get away with a crime. This perhaps undermines the very safety of bank clientele that the spokesperson desired to protect.
A final concern about complete transparency that the literature revealed is its potential to stifle situations where honest deliberation is critical. A stark example of this came after the recent health debates in the U.S. Congress had ground to a rancor-induced stalemate. President Barack Obama called for a summit on the issue and decided to fulfill a campaign promise to televise the debates in the name of transparency. While the summit seemed to proceed with civility and respect, senior public relations counselor Roger Bolton (2010) argued that perhaps
more could have been accomplished without public scrutiny:
I suggest you might want to try to have some of these conversations behind closed doors. (I know, we’re all for transparency, but a little secrecy won’t hurt as long as no back-room deals are cut. With the cameras turned off, maybe you can make some quiet attempts to find a little common ground – something that can best be done without the posturing and the talking points) (Bolton, 2010, p. 1).
To this point, then, while agreeing with the basic principle of transparency, we have tried to show the problems inherent with unrestrained transparency. In some regards, this reluctance to fully advocate transparency represents the difference between what J. Grunig and White (1992) would call the normative ideal of complete disclosure versus the practical and sometimes moral realities of the construct. There certainly is a need to draw more useful distinctions between the majority of occasions when full transparency is desired and those occasions where it may not be 879 appropriate. Therefore, we embarked on this study by conducting in-depth interviews of identified experts in the arena of communication or public relations.
As mentioned in the introduction, we set out to address three main questions:
Question #1: Under what specific circumstances is transparent communication necessary and beneficial?
Question #2: When is it better to not disclose information, even given today’s expectations of instantaneous, complete messaging?
Research Method Having established the theoretical framework for these questions, the authors of this paper decided to pose them to a group of nine senior public relations professionals. We approached an examination into the questions qualitatively because theory-building in the area of transparency has been relatively sparse; therefore we believed that attempts to understand the construct are still exploratory in nature, and therefore qualitative research is appropriate (Pauly, 1991). Because we sought from the outset to interview highly respected professionals in the field (most of these respondents have been serving as authors, consultants to executives of major firms, or both), we believed that nine interviews would provide the requisite data to satisfy reliability in a qualitative study. The interviews we conducted were designed to address the theoretical assumptions of this paper and to better understand the practical applications and potential limitations of transparency in the practice of public relations.
One important aspect of a qualitative investigation is that it allows data to emerge from those who are being studied, rather than having perspectives imposed upon the sample. While the authors of this paper did enter the research believing that there are holes in the argument of unquestioned transparency, it was important to gather data as objectively as possible—to allow for contradiction to our own worldviews. Each of the interviews unfolded over an average of about 40 minutes. Some of the respondents generally had strong opinions in favor of transparency, others had considerable concerns about the concept and its application, and some sat clearly in the middle of the spectrum. Nevertheless, as the interviews proceeded, ample information was revealed that provided support for, contradiction toward, and further enlightenment of the concept of transparency.
Interviews and Observations In all nine of our interviews, the themes of ethics, honesty, and responsibility to share information with the public were expressed and regarded as being highly important. At the same time, all the professionals interviewed had experienced distinct limitations to the traditional doctrine of transparency and the ability to invoke it all of the time in a real-world environment.
Results of these interviews, including specific relevant quotes from some of the interviews, are included in the pages to follow. It is important to begin with why the respondents viewed transparency as crucial in today’s society, and then there will be subsequent discussion on the practical and ethical limitations of the concept.