Transparency: Social Media Is Forcing You to Tell the Truth
“I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.” —Hunter S. Thompson.
Dr. Thompson would have loved to write about the immoral alliances between politicians, the press and the police that led to yesterday’s execution of News of the World. He’s not here to do that, and social media has replaced gonzo journalism as a force targeting corporate irresponsibility and enforcing transparency—in this case irresponsibility in media itself.
Although closing down the Murdoch’s flagship publication was inevitable under the circumstances, the timeline was accelerated by the realization by major brands such as Ford that advertising in News of The World might not be such a good idea. What’s remarkable is the speed at which advertisers shifted their position on News of The World.
“I sourced some more advertisers from Sunday’s News of the World,” said Andy Dawson, who goes under the twitter name @profanityswan, “and urged my Twitter followers to copy and paste the tweets if they felt strongly about the hacking story. Within about 90 minutes, it had started to snowball, and my timeline was filled with people tweeting at various companies.”
According to Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent for BBC Mobile, “a random collection of loosely organised people with no one leader have come together to deal a blow to the finances of a powerful media organization.”
Welcome to what political analyst and writer Micah Sifry has dubbed “the uncomfortable Age of Transparency.” Sify argues that we are in a generational and philosophical struggle between older, closed systems and the new, open culture of the Internet. Despite the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the publication of secret documents continues around the world, and citizens are demanding more accountability from government leaders and corporate executives.
In 2007, Fortune magazine estimated that there were 70 million blogs, up from 15,000 in 2002. Many blogs and websites target a particular industry or corporation and tap inside sources eager to leak information without revealing their identities and putting their relationships or jobs at risk. As an example, protestbarrick.net helps group researching and advocating around mining issues, particularly involving Barrick Gold.
“Businesses now really need to understand something that governments, dictators didn’t understand. Someday you’ll be busted. Anything you do will be known. Social media’s gonna get you, and if you’re lying we’re gonna know,” Egyptian filmmaker Amr Salama said at the annual Cannes advertising festival last month.
Today, global corporations run the risk of being busted at any time. The best defense against this is transparency. The problem is that business people don’t know what transparency looks like or how to assess whether or not their companies are, in fact, transparent.
What transparency means to business has changed dramatically. According to the Business Dictionary, transparency is the “minimum degree of disclosure to which agreements, dealings, practices, and transactions are open to all for verification.” However, in their 2008 book, Transparency: Creating a Culture of Candor, authors Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and Patricia Ward Biederman describe transparency as “the free flow of information within an organization and between the organization and its many stakeholders, including the public.”
Volkswagen’s Transparent Factory puts corporate transparency in a new light. “Die Gläserne Manufaktur” is an automobile production plant located just 100 meters from the Dresden Botanical Gardens in the city center. It blends with the beauty of the ancient German city. Visitors are more likely to think it is an art gallery or modern office block than a car factory. No noise, dirt or pollution emits from it, and passers-by can see in real-time if things are moving, working and shipping. It is likely that Die Gläserne Manufaktur has reduced Volkswagen’s risk of being targeted by social media activism.
Is it possible to attach key performance indicators to something as intangible as transparency? Shel Holtz and John Havens, authors of Tactical Transparency, have developed the following framework for assessing transparency, to which my company, Impakt Corporation, has added specific measurement criteria.
—Leadership: The leaders of transparent companies are accessible and are straightforward when talking with members of key audiences.
—Values: Ethical behavior, fair treatment, and other values are on full display in transparent companies.
—Culture: How a company does things is more important today than what it does. The way things are done is not a secret in transparent companies.
—Business strategy: Of particular importance to the investment community but also of interest to other audiences, a company’s strategy is a key basis for investment decisions relating to increasing transparency.
—Employees: Employees of transparent companies are accessible, can reinforce the public view of the company, and are always able to help people where appropriate.
—Results: Transparent companies are clear about the results of all business practices, both good and bad. Successes, failures, problems, and victories all are communicated to all stakeholders.
Charles Green founder and chief executive of Trusted Advisor Associates believes that it’s also important to remember that transparency is about more than processes and measurement. “If a company manages itself significantly by values then it is more likely to be transparent,” he says. “The reason is simple when you think about it: You can keep total secrecy with a hierarchical, need-to-know, numbers approach, but managing by values requires a lot of open communication.”
In a recent TED Talk, Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock said transparency is scary, unpredictable and risky. Last week police, politicians, and the media found out that in the age of social media not telling the truth is even more risky and transparency is paramount. As one former Fleet Street editor said: “This is Britain’s Arab Spring.”