Transparency in Communications: Utopia, Diktat or Opportunity?
Because it has been overly covered by Sustainability & Communication professionals, the notion of “transparency” has been tarnished over time. Whether you consider it as the solution to many ills, an inevitable step towards the world of web 2.0, or as the Holy Grail, it spread through CSR discussions so deeply that one would almost forget to ask about its origin and legitimacy. Yet, transparency is far from being evidence, and its concrete application in the corporate world, from operations to communication, is still debated.
To clear things up, the French blog “Brand News Blog” founded by Herve Monier decided to take a look back at the circumstances which led to an increased interest in transparency, and analyzed its stakes in an insightful article that I translated below.
Transparency : a safe investment for our society?
“Transparency”, which comes from the Latin word “trans-parere” (=letting go through), has progressively expanded to many activities, to the extent of being ubiquitous today. What are the reasons of this success? From an ethical perspective, transparency seems to have become the last resort for citizens and consumers against economic, social & political dysfunctions. As Thierry Libaert sums up*, we tend to believe that “the world would be a better place if transparency was all around”.
This belief […] results from two phenomenon: the first one is the increase in all types of worldwide crises (Tchernobyl, the war in Irak, 9/11, Enron…) and the mistrust of consumers and citizens towards corporations and institutions; the second is the technological revolution that now enables us to track and secure almost all of our actions, leading the way to an increasing need of control.
Because of recurrent manipulation attempts and lies, the society doesn’t tolerate the slightest lack of transparency in the way public or private affaires are managed any more. As a consequence, the organizations which do not implement further transparent business practices tend to seem suspicious.
This requirement of transparency has been strengthened during the last decade by the rise of social media. From a controlled and small amount of information, we’ve now evolved into an era where information is free and made available to the widest audience very quickly. […] The consequence is that there is not a single institution or major company which hasn’t grasped the notion of transparency, used it as a major pillar in its communication strategy, and claimed its strict application through all its activities.
Limits to this “obscure need for clarity”…
In this context, Thierry Libaert pointed out significant and systematic contradictions based upon 50 annual reports he read: organizations advocating transparency the most were often the ones which opacity was the strongest. For example, according to their official publications, Vivendi and Enron claimed to be the “most transparent” companies there is…until we learnt otherwise.
The pledge for a fake transparency is without a doubt a trap, in which most companies tend to fall. But yet most communication experts now recognize that full transparency is impossible, and even less desirable as most stakeholders don’t even ask for it.
“We should stop talking about transparency in a global way, but instead always try to understand it according to a certain context and precisely list the elements that could be disclosed…or not” explains Thierry Libaert.
Indeed, in specific industries or cases (such as a commercial negotiation), it is obvious that organizations cannot disclose all of their key information to the widest audience.
On the other hand, another well-known pitfall is the disclosure of a multitude of different information items, which is not always the guarantee of transparency or truthfulness, but quite the opposite. The “infobesity” or “carpet bombing” (disclosing non significant or unrelated information) tends to confuse the issue and prevent a public debate rather than promoting transparency. […]
Transparency as a value creation and relational lever for stakeholders
But can we still avoid transparency today? For those who don’t have an answer to this question yet, I advise them to read the blogs of Olivier Cimetière and Christophe Lachnitt who regularly write about the companies facing public criticism due to a lack of transparency, and spending more time bringing those scandals to an end than discussing with their stakeholders. […]
My take is to consider transparency from a performance point of view, instead of a mandatory one, and see it more as a challenge to face than an obligation to comply with. […] This is an opinion shared by Jean-Baptiste Favatier, an expert who advices high-level managers and public institutions. He states** that transparency is not an option anymore and the debate is no longer about the “should we disclose everything or not?” question. All the studies and surveys go in the same direction: nobody really expects to know everything about a company and its strategic or commercial secrets… But the needs of stakeholders are well-known and very clear: to feel that their requirements have been taken into account, that they’ll get a response within a reasonable timeframe and that the company respects a precise communication agenda that has been previously planned. […]
In response to those needs, and by turning traditional communication tools to “listening channels” and “stakeholders engagement” materials, transparency can become a strategic lever by restoring a meaningful relationship with citizens. […]
Where does transparency start?
We’ve seen that transparency makes corporate communications enter a new strategic and technical dimension, where it is not used as a tool but as a real objective. To follow this path, Jean-Baptiste Favatier draws up the six following challenges that companies must now face:
- Define a real strategy, based on the mapping of your transparency topics.
- Restructure your communication tools and materials to adapt them to the needs of your stakeholders and reinforce your relationship with them.
- Adapt your organization to be ultra-responsive and learn how to manage a communication crisis.
- Implement a precise communication agenda, which establishes what audience should be the priority for each type of information.
- Study all the different ways a company can become more responsible in the medium and long run
- Multiply concrete proofs of transparency within your employees’ work environment and in the public space.
Are you ready for your transparency journey? Share your story below!
* : Article “Hors la transparence, point de salut” by Thierry Libaert, published in the Journal de l’Union des entreprises romandes (19 décembre 2003)
**: In the magazine“Communication Sensible”