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With this article 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. In this respect, the notion of transparent light conduction shares several key characteristics with translucent
communication in organizations:
• It is based on the premise that there will be some line of vision or illumination into the organization.
• There is sufficient illumination to determine basic organizational action responses and directions (the shapes can be seen moving through the glass pane.
• When circumstances dictate, the line of vision can be expanded into a more transparent view (e.g., the door can be opened).
In addition to expressing the need for translucency, this paper further proposes several key considerations under which translucency can and should occur when organizations are building relationships with their key publics—not in any effort to hide information, but to reveal
it at the right time and under the right circumstances:
1. Translucency is a commitment to communicate with stakeholders—not an advance commitment to what that communication will contain.
Committing to communicate with stakeholders doesn’t promise a particular volume or content of information; it is simply a promise that, as one interviewee noted, “We will tell you as soon as we know the answer, we’ll tell you the answer and the implications for you. The commitment is, I will engage and understand your needs. When we have the information you need—when it is accurate, stable and actionable—we will open the door.”
2. Translucency occurs only when credibility has already been established.
Communication is a two-way street—light must be conducted through both sides of the glass. In communications relationships, translucency—a state in which the basic outline and intent of actions is clear, though all the details may not be so clear—can work only if the perceiver of the actions trusts the sender and believes that sender has their best interests at heart.
The higher the trust level in these situations, the greater the acceptance of a lack of specific detail. One respondent to the study, a professional who is highly experienced in crisis communications, noted that this trust is often the force that preserves stakeholder relationships even when little information is available. And to have trust and translucency, organizations must be willing to step up and acknowledge this. Says the interviewee, “In the event of a rail accident that releases a hazardous chemical, for example, perhaps all the company can say is, ‘We can confirm there’s a release. We don’t know much. But we’ll give you more information as we have it.’ There is always a need to converse with stakeholders.”
3. Translucency might be most effective when there is reason to believe that an organization’s arguments and data are rock-solid, but not persuasive.
A translucent approach is common-place in the arena of issues communications, where the information being communicated can often be associated with fear, confusion, or lack of understanding. One professional in our study described the process of sensitive communication in this way: “Communicating scientific information to a lay audience requires that you not get into all the details of the science, which might be required in transparency. But what if seven research studies support that the product is safe, and one raises questions? What is the most accurate way to portray this in a balanced way? Rather than listing all the details of each study, the most effective and translucent approach might be to say, ‘The weight of the evidence’ or ‘the totality of the science’ supports this or that. Then if someone wants more, you’d go to another layer of information.”
4. Translucency is most effective when an organization already has in place a process and structure for bringing more light of information through the glass.
885 Organizations which are striving to maintain translucent communications with their stakeholders will likely succeed only if they have built up a trust bank based on past communication behavior—in other words, if they have responded promptly and openly across all levels over an extended period. This organizational predisposition to openness can, according to
one respondent, be assessed by asking a few key questions:
• Is the CEO accessible and communicative?
• Has the company shared a clear vision?
• Is the organization precise (rather than vague) in its communications? As one interviewee admonished, “Deliver the right amount of communication. If you make too much information visible, it dilutes the power of your message.
Openness has to cut both ways if it is going to work.” It is important to note here the role that precision in or of communication plays in this process. Traditionally, transparency is equated to volume of information offered—the more information we provide, the more transparent we are. The translucency corollary, however, espouses the idea that it is the quality of information—not necessarily quantity—that counts. The corollary further proposes that it may often be better for both sender and receiver to wait longer and receive less information at the outset if that information can be more precise and accurate as a result.
ConclusionAs in any balancing act between scholarship and practice, there is always a tension between the normative and practical reality. Normative theory proposes what would be the ideal in any given situation, or how it should be. Practical reality, of course, represents what is actually happening within society or in an organization (J. Grunig & White, 1992). Both of the authors of this paper had been involved in practical implementation of public relations for more than two decades before joining the academic ranks full-time. When introduced to the scholarly writings on transparency, it seemed to us that certain practical realities were not being addressed, that some of the nuances behind the imperatives of transparency had not been explored. Therefore, we determined to explore these nuances so as to provide a more complete understanding of the concept of transparency and to offer practitioners are more comprehensive and accurate roadmap for performing their daily duties.
As mentioned earlier, the purpose of this paper was to address three main research questions: (1) Under what specific circumstances is transparent communication necessary and beneficial; (2) When is it better to not disclose information, even given today’s expectations of instantaneous, complete messaging; and (3) In which situations does absolute transparency actually harm stakeholders and societies? From the literature review and the interviews of nine senior professionals in the communications industry, we should have shown that transparent communication is indeed beneficial in theory and in most circumstances. We also indicated, however, that there are situations where completely transparent communication has its limitations and negative consequences on both organizations and stakeholders. The interviews and the literature also brought forth some specific examples of harm that can come when transparency is misapplied.
886 Why a Corollary Instead of an Alternative Theory?
In developing this paper, we did not set out to demolish the importance of transparency;
we believe that the necessity of open, honest communication is indisputable in public relations.
However, the term should not receive a free, unquestioned ride. While transparency is needed in the large majority of situations, public relations scholars and practitioners can gain much greater benefit by understanding what is meant by the term, when it is most appropriate, and under what circumstances complete openness, or “spilling all the beans,” may not be appropriate at all.
In datasegment.com (2010), a corollary is defined as, “Something which follows from the demonstration of a proposition; an additional inference or deduction from a demonstrated proposition” (p. 1). A corollary, then, might be observed as a certain Proposition B flowing out of an original Proposition A, but instead of forging an outright denouncement of the original theory the corollary could be considered a secondary element offering added insight or expansion to the original. In this case, then, it is possible that transparency is Proposition A, and translucency serves as a Proposition B which sheds more light, as it were, on communication transparency rather than replacing the theory altogether. As a result, we have selected the term corollary as appropriately clarifying the original concept of transparency.
This is not dissimilar to the evolution of media issues and agenda theories. McCombs and Shaw (1972) introduced agenda setting theory, which proposed that the media do not tell us what to think but what to think about—that by reporting certain issues, media set the agenda for public debate and subsequent action. Lang and Lang (1983) then determined that “the original notion of agenda setting needed to be expanded” (Severin & Tankard, 2001, p. 230)—that the original idea did not explain what really occurs thoroughly enough. They proposed a theory of agenda building, “a collective process in which media, government, and the public influence one another in determining what issues to be considered” (Severin & Tankard, 2001, p. 230).
Lang and Lang (1983) apparently did not sense any need to dispute or overturn agenda setting theory; rather, they strengthened the research and propositions behind the theory so as to further clarify and expand the concept of agendas in society. That is what we have attempted to do with the translucency corollary—not to displace the original theory of transparency, but to enhance and to clarify it. With this paper providing parameters under which translucent communication must take place in given circumstances—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.
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