On Truth and Transparency

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Former BP CEO Tony Hayward's low point in transparency that contributed to his removal from the position and drew the ire and fire of the public via social media.

Subtitled: Why being transparent is important in Social Media (but not without being honest.)

The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, was a book written in 1999 by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger. It identified the internet’s role in creating new customer to company conversations and employee to employee conversations via 95 theses.

The book stated stated that ‘markets are conversations” (Twitter initially considered but ultimately rejected the slogan “Join the markets” : ) and at first blush appears to be extremely prescient on the issues facing social media marketers in 2010. (In the interest of transparency I have to admit I have only read the elevator pitch and about 50 words of the book.)

Point 62 of the manifesto states: Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall.

In Andrew Cherwenka’s blog revisiting the Cluetrain Manifesto on the occasion of its tenth anniversary his take is that a decade after the book’s publishing “we have come a long way to the illusion of transparency and effective participation but not much closer to achieving it.”

One of his points is that while executives are more visible than ever, capitalizing on the reach and instant access of YouTube and Twitter their messages are often nothing more than messages crafted by their agencies or “flacks”. This is an effort to appear transparent but in an affront to the spirit of transparency that they claim to embrace, I would add that executives and politicians frequently don’t disclose that others are speaking on their behalf in these channels.

If corporations chose to have agencies or ghostwriters post opinions of behalf of executives they at very least need to come clean and clarify in account details that others are posting through their persona.

What has proven even worse than the company-line being pushed out by undisclosed third parties through an executive’s “personal” social media channels,  is when the public is given access to an executive and their honest opinion is out of sync with the corporate message. It has been said that “information wants to be free” and I would argue that “the truth wants to be known”. It has the uncanny ability to come to the surface at the worst possible time for those who hope to hold it back. Especially when armies of every-men are looking for it and are in a great position to tell their friends when they find it. If an executive does not truly embody or believe in the company messaging of the day, now more than ever, chances of “catastrophic truth” coming out are considerable.

And when it does the days of being able to control your message are gone. For as much as a social network of engaged customers can spread a positive message, bad news travels far and it travels fast on the lips of the very people organizations are trying to build a relationship with via social media. And these people do not appreciate being treated like dupes.

Is there a better example of how transparency without truth can backfire than when BP executive Tony Hayward expressed deep regret for the impact of the gulf oil spill and then in the next breath says he “Wants his life back.”?  The media and consumers immediately picked up on the contradiction between his crafted message and candid comments and the discussion boards flew into overdrive. And not in a good way for BP.

In his 2007 Book “Meatball Sundae” Seth Godin brought to light the risks companies run by not adapting their business practices to the new media reality. Simply using new media techniques without changing your practices is like putting whip-cream and a cherry on a meatball. They key is synchronization. As elaborated on earlier it is crucial in social media that transparency is synchronized with a truthful message.

In a time where it is harder and harder to keep the truth from surfacing, organizations are advised to expect the truth to come out and modify their business practices so that they have as little as possible to be embarrassed of. While this is much more difficult than dressing up your corporate image and message to match the values of your consumers it is becoming the only viable option.

If an organization is not in a position to be legitimately transparent and their actions or the opinions of their leaders do not match the brand message, it is reasonable to limit these leaders’ social media access. Being found out to being deceitful is a bigger risk than not attermpting to appear transparent.

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