«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
880 The Imperative for Transparency The professionals who were interviewed generally agreed that the notion of transparency —and the increasing pressure on society and its various organizations to become and remain more transparent—has been accelerated due to modern technologies such as the Internet and social media. They also concurred that the concept is here to stay. “More and more,” one of the respondents explained, “it’s not as hard to convince people that they need to be transparent, to the degree that it’s appropriate.” Many of the individuals interviewed also linked the concept of transparency to honesty and to professional and organizational ethics. Despite the complications and dilemmas sometimes presented by completely transparent behavior, the large majority of the interviewees agreed on and cited specific circumstances under which transparent communication is necessary and beneficial for society. Said one professional, “A fundamental principle is never to mislead.
Be as honest as you can under the circumstances that you face…and it should be the same thing for organizations.” Another added that, “Transparency is important in acknowledging and responding to stakeholder concerns.” And, an additional comment was made that, “We need to get out of the paradigm in which organizations thought they controlled everything.” This demand for honest, open communication is particularly important in times of crisis or negative publicity. One respondent explained, “When there are gaps in the correlation between what is wrong and what you tell people about how you’ll fix it, that’s when transparency comes into play. The advice is, ‘Don’t keep your secrets. Share.’ The world knows better [than to purposefully withhold information]—especially this generation of workers who will be taking over the boardroom in a few years.” Limitations of Transparency At a fairly early point in each of the eight interviews, however, the limitations of transparency—and of creating or maintaining an organizational policy of providing information to all parties at all times—were identified and described. Analysis of the responses revealed a distinct pattern for these limitations of transparency. They fall into five categories.
1. Transparency is not the same thing as truth.
All the senior public relations professionals agreed that the primary objective of transparency should be to get at the truth. They all also agreed however, that in actuality transparency reveals fact much more often than it reveals truth.
One interviewee used this example: Suppose that Joe is applying for a job and the hiring manager contacts Joe’s former boss for a recommendation. In response to an inquiry about Joe’s overall performance, the former manager explains that Joe was always on time, that he didn’t shout at work, and that the manager never smelled any alcohol on Joe’s breath. It’s highly unlikely that Joe or any other job candidate (or hiring manager) would be happy with a reference like this, because, while every statement is true, each can also cast a false or negative light. The problem with transparency, said the interviewee, is that “each statement was a fact, but collectively it was not the truth. And the danger is that some might take transparency for truth, when in fact, it’s only fact.”
2. Perspectives on transparency can vary significantly from culture to culture.
This area was one that epitomized the way in which, in a qualitative study, data can emerge from the respondents. Other than the notion discussed briefly in the literature review, that information is viewed from differing perspectives, the authors had not considered the cultural variations on transparency until the interviews were conducted. A few respondents emphasized 881 the salience of these cultural differences, explaining why transparency is valued so much more among groups in the United States than in other countries or cultures.
As an example of this, one interviewee from Japan distinguished between the Japanese view of transparency and how it is seen in the United States. The respondent referred to the historical melding of many cultures within the U.S., a melding which has created the “lowcontext” environment described by Edward T. Hall (1976). A hallmark of this low-context culture is the need for precise words and information in order to negotiate and clarify the differing meanings between the various cultural perspectives. Such an environment fosters demands for transparency. A respondent from Australia added, “The U.S. is a melting pot— transparency is more important because there is no dominant culture. It’s such a melting pot that people might not understand you unless you disclose everything.” By contrast, in historically homogenous, high-context cultures such as Japan, meaning and understanding takes place implicitly in interactions, without a need for many words and much precision. Therefore, not only is there little desire for transparency but also considerable puzzlement in many cultures over why Americans place such great value on the concept.
The same interviewee from Australia also raised the notion that many of these differing cultural views of transparency are embedded in a fundamental difference in the “shame-faced” approach of many other cultures versus “guilt-based” approach of American culture. The individual explained, “In other cultures, values such as dignity of the individual (the avoidance of shame) have a much higher value that they do in a “guilt space” culture like the U.S.” Consequently, the preservation of such individual dignity may trump the expectation of total and complete transparency in a given situation.”
3. Transparency may not be the best ethical or emotional choice.
Although the idea of transparency is strongly linked to ethics, the results of the field professional interviews raised the idea that complete transparency may not always be the best ethical decision. In some cases, for example, the prevailing ethical consideration may be privacy issues, not transparency. Said one interviewee, “There are things you don’t say yet, things you don’t tell some people at all. Use ethics principles to guide your selection.” By not revealing the identities of deceased persons, for example, organizations are operating out of consideration for their families—and it is obvious what devastating consequences may occur when this type of information is revealed too quickly. In a workplace environment, managers don’t share information about employees’ performance or salaries with fellow employees or external publics.
If they do, they risk creating embarrassing rivalries and morale issues.
At times, the motives for withholding information can actually be altruistic. One professional relayed an example that occurred when a business was considering closing some of its manufacturing facilities. During the time the company was evaluating which facilities to close (a fact known to the public), employees would often ask, “Will my plant be closed?” Even though management had a fairly good idea at the onset which plants might close, they waited until the complete results of the financial analysis were available before making the final decision and answering that question. A traditional definition of transparency might have dictated that management offer its best guess as to which plants would close, even before making the final decision. However, noted the interviewee, in this case it was determined that the best ethical decision was to refrain from such an announcement—in part because an advance knowledge of the plant closings would have enabled competitors to stir up “no confidence” fears among customers and seize the business—thus costing more employees more jobs, more quickly, 882 than the closing process would have otherwise inflicted. It also would have stirred up an even greater amount of emotional stress among those who would not have needed to worry.
Another interviewee noted that it depends on the motive. If a company’s motive for not disclosing is that it hasn’t made a decision yet (e.g., the business knows it’s considering pulling its operations out of a specific community), it would be inappropriate to notify any of the affected stakeholders until a decision is made. “However,” he continued, “there might be a case for transparency at that point if your motive is to encourage the local community to provide incentives that would make it more financially viable for you to stay.”
4. Transparency—when it provides information that is incomplete or out of context— can diminish, rather than improve, understanding and effectiveness.
Some professionals felt that information offered in the name of transparency, particularly when overwhelming and under-explained, served to obfuscate rather than clarify issues and facts.
This concern is reflected in a blog written by a humanitarian aid worker. While this writer was not one of the nine individuals interviewed for this article, the examples concerning the results of transparency without context are instructive.
It [transparency] will not result in more effective, more efficient aid. On more than one occasion I have seen unfiltered program performance and financial data in the hands of people not trained to understand it is completely misunderstood [sic]. The results in all cases amounted to long, costly and tedious distractions for my employer at the time. The amount of staff time and level of effort expended in one instance to placate a self-righteous reporter who failed to properly understand the meaning of the term “audit” was immense and in the end lowered program quality. In another instance, the level of effort required to convince a wealthy but clueless supporter that a FAX machine for the field office (this was in the days before email) was a reasonable cost to incur under a “miscellaneous office equipment” line item, when we costed it out, was more expensive than the FAX machine that had caused the uproar to begin with. In both instances (and a great many others) transparency unaccompanied by discreet selection or filtering of information led to diminished effectiveness and efficiency.
The underlying concern in this situation seems to be that, once presented with a plethora of information, key publics may decide that is all they need, and work directly to a conclusion that may turn out to be inaccurate. In other words, as noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association instance cited earlier (Lessig, 2009), transparency sometimes becomes
about volume and speed of information—not quality of information. One professional explained:
“Employing organizational thought to arrive at the right conclusion will cause people to think broadly. But with transparency, you go to the single, most obvious option.” Several interviewees stated that one way to avoid the trap of “leading the witness” by providing seemingly-comprehensive (but actually incomplete) information is to make a greater effort to determine what the audience needs to know, in advance of the communication. One respondent remarked that, “Most PR people think transparency is ‘You’ve always got to tell the truth.’ That’s not what transparency is. It is nothing more than Jim Grunig (1992) said years ago—transparency is the symmetrical form of communication—you listen, adjust, listen again, and adjust again.”
5. An attitude of authenticity is more important than an act of transparency.
883 The professionals interviewed agreed in general that a “technical” compliance with transparency (e.g., producing large volumes of uncontexted documents in response to a request for information) is not helpful in establishing long-term trust with stakeholders. In such cases, the act of communicating may leave the stakeholders feeling that their needs weren’t considered at all. Consequently, while the approach might have been very transparent, it was not at all authentic—and, said the professionals who were involved in this study, authenticity counts the most when trying to build trust.
One professional recalled a situation in which an organization was forced to confront a scandal involving an employee. The organization went into what the respondent called “full transparency mode,” turning the investigation over to an internal management team who already had an axe to grind with the employee in question. The interviewee reported that the investigation was extremely one-sided, with no clear messaging or communication strategy from management. This led to greater confusion and anger among employees and diminished credibility for the management team.
The key to achieving authenticity, according to several of the professionals interviewed, is not only to talk, but to listen—and then adjust when appropriate. The power of authenticity lies in the fact that the communicator listens to feedback from stakeholders—and demonstrates to those stakeholders that what they said matters. Noted one senior manager: “We have a tendency to do too much talking and not enough listening. Management tends to have biases in terms of how they think people feel about things—and more often than not, they’re a little off-kilter...” The interviewee went on to explain that, “The difficulty is changing and adjusting based on what you hear. That’s where it falls apart—because management doesn’t always accept and act on that.” Based on the patterns in these responses, it is apparent that the concept of transparency needs more clarity. The data has led us as authors to an expansion of the definition and a new term to more comprehensively address the concept: the translucency corollary.
Towards an Expanded Construct: Translucency Given these observations around the three questions posed in the study, we turn to establishing this modified framework for communicating openly, honestly, and ethically with stakeholders. As noted earlier in the paper, we propose that a stance of translucency may be more appropriate in certain circumstances. As a means of light conduction, translucency occurs when the 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.