Posted by Amanda Chapel
Net Transparency and The Rise of Taliban Militia-like Geek Thugs
Unless you've been living under Iraq, you're certainly aware that one of the most import social debates happening today is on the topic of "privacy." Some of privacy's loudest advocates are also ironically the loudest supporters of the "Age of Transparency." Odd.
Here we look at the cultural demand for transparency on the net. We look to examine it from a business perspective and potentially its long-term implications. We try to quell some of the misinformation and vitriol. Here specifically we try to highlight some of the key points as it relates to public relations.
By way of introduction, we'd like to thank a friend, Rachel Smolkin, managing editor of American Journalism Review, for her inspirational piece in the April/May issue. Titled "Too Transparent?," Rachel evaluates the issue from the perspective of a journalist. In her words, "It's healthy for news organizations to be much more open about their decision making than they have been in the past. But in response to relentless pounding from bloggers and other critics, is the transparency movement getting out of hand?"
The answer is YES! To understand that, first: What exactly is transparency? How did it come about? And how is it now the weapon of Taliban Militia-like Net geeks who bully others to impose their fundamentalist beliefs.
What exactly is transparency?
Transparency is a misnomer frankly. Theoretically it is when a transaction is without ambiguity. More importantly, "transparency" is based on the assumption that full disclosure is a universal good. That is, the more informed I am the better decision I will make. Says Sy Sims, "The educated consumer is our best customer."
Sorry Sy but that's not necessarily true. Science Magazine published a paper last month titled "On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect," (February 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5763, pp. 1005 - 1007). According to the latest research, "Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing. Named the 'deliberation-without-attention' hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies on consumer choice, both in the laboratory as well as among actual shoppers, that purchases of complex products were viewed more favorably when decisions had been made in the absence of attentive deliberation."
Note the operative words "before choosing." That's what transparency is all about. Do I have all the information and resources available so that my decision... is mine. Remember, it's this choice thing that got us kicked out of paradise to begin with. Choice, or the lack thereof, is the fundamental human condition.
Anyway, the misnomer is that full disclosure is synonymous with total information. This is the root cause of what I call Organizational Tourette's Syndrome. Organizations feel compelled to tell you too much information today in the sprit of "full disclosure." TMI! Excuse me but "PLAHLEEES SHUT THE DOOR," I used to say to my ex-husband. To the hamburger chain, pahleeese... I really don't want to hear the details of how you process the beef to retain its flavor. By the time you're through telling me how the moose was cleaned, splayed and spliced, stomach, entrails hoof and bloody eyeballs... I've lost my appetite altogether. Full disclosure certainly has helped society variously but it has also ironically put a huge damper on consumer confidence. I rather starve than eat that thing now that I know what it is. Same goes for my once love of politicians, priests, cars, mayonnaise and cigarettes.
How did the cultural bias for full disclosure come about?
It is a direct consequence of the steady drip of high-profile scandals at companies such as Adelphia Communications, HealthSouth, Global Crossing, Tyco International, Worldcom, and Enron, to name a few. The tech bubble... yousa!, a historic boon of mega swindlers. "Irrational exuberance" was because we were all led to believe that we'd get rich. (For the record, we the PR Industry made a shit load of money facilitating that. We were the air in the bubble.) Add to the scandals that we were hoodwinked into an historically ethically compromising war with the misleading claim of WMDs. We've all been terribly had.
History will look back and not refer to this as the Age of Transparency, but rather the Age of Fraud and Malfeasants.
Nobody trusts institutions anymore! Let's do a study to affirm the obvious. PR king, Richard Edelman did. The Edelman Trust Barometer (hokey title) found that "We have reached an important juncture, where the lack of trust in established institutions and figures of authority has motivated people to trust their peers as the best sources of information about a company."
Oh. Well. I guess that generally speaking then, one could say that "trust" is a necessary element in decision making. Apparently, society is going through a massive realignment. Today, forget church, your priest, your boss, the doctor... I trust Marcy.
Here's the problem with that. Unless I am only going to do business with Marcy, or unless everyone on the planet decides to defer to Marcy's counsel (excellent as it is), the possibility that a stranger and I will share the same belief structure, and find trust, is remote.
Ah... that's a problem. As a result, each of us needs or thinks we need to know everything to buy a simple loaf of bread. Now tell me how many grams of fat there are in a single serving. Too much information.
How is it now the weapon of Taliban Militia-like Net geek thugs?
First, the flattening of the business ecosystem along with the proliferation of various communications technologies has not only resulted in a dramatic increase in individual empowerment... it's led to the rise of "smart mobs." A phrase coined by Howard Rheingold in his book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, "a smart mob is a quickly formed group that as a consequence of its use of network tools, can dramatically increase and focus social coordination." Depending on how the technology is used, "smart mobs may be beneficial or detrimental to society."
Okay, now look at certain PR Bloggers and lead zealots like Shel Holtz and friends. These are the same geeky misfits that made up the high-school AV club. Now listen to Shel and others self righteously proclaim that "Online credibility is based on transparency." These web-thug fundamentalists would surely mug Mini Mouse at Disney World and throw her into the Seven Seas Lagoon.
Why does the dynamic persist and where does it get its power?
Sadly, this is the PR's Blogging "A" team. They were the "pioneers" (their words). As such, their perceptions and misperceptions have been raised up as gospel. When they say the word "podcasting," i.e. a simple procedure of recording and putting that file on the web, you'd think you'd have heard an interview with Reinhart Stroodle, the famous international brain surgeon, on NPR.
It is self reinforcing because they promote and protect each other. Also, as the fundamentalists are loud, they give off the appearance of general consensus.
Bottom line: their real motive is to maintain their power. As such any threat is reduced.
Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University speaking on the phenomena as it relates to media said, "To me, the cry for transparency isn't about holding media accountable. It's a way to make certain media discountable. It creates a rationale for ignoring content you dislike by dismissing it as the deliberate product of unshakeable prejudice."
Again, among the zealots, it's transparency for transparency sake across the board. Jeff Jarvis for instance, the blogger behind buzzmachine.com, thinks "there's pretty much no such thing as too much explaining. In fact, we haven't done nearly enough," he says.
Nonsense. Disclosure, ethically speaking is multifaceted. It is situational: I just don't want to tell you; I have a motive to tell you; I have a motive not to tell you; the inquirer has a motive to ask. Ironically, PR bloggers have the least moral grounding to question "transparency." As each situation is imbued with various implications of intention, their intensions are most suspect.
Now that's the issue. It is the conflict with choice that businesses today are just now learning to navigate. And until we come to terms with that, we need to better manage the fundamentalists. According to Wasserman, "Instead of ad hominem critiques, we're better off focusing on what matters: subjecting reporting to the test of truthfulness, and argument to the test of persuasiveness. That's the terrain we can fight and win on."
Someday history will look back and account for all the damage these thugs have caused in the name of truth.
Lastly, for all the small-minded PR thug bloggers, in the spirit of total transparency, I just farted.
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Interesting post Amanda. You bring up some good points about the sometimes dubious value of transparency. Although bloggers talk a lot about transparency, its oftentimes hard to tell whether they are practicing it. For example, many bloggers talk about publications, companies and products on a regular basis. Sometimes they disclose that they are talking about clients, sometimes not. Also, when they are blogging on behalf of a big corporation they are constrained in what they can talk about by corporate mores, values and NDAs.
However, when it comes to healthcare, especially pharmaceutical companies, I think that more transparency is needed. Take the recent push toward making it harder, not easier to find information about the potential side effects of medication. I think this is a bad idea. Now, granted, this information is scary and could impact sales. However, when you look at recent court cases where juries are punishing Merck for not disclosing information about potential side effects, it becomes clear that the cost of not disclosing this information is greater than the short-term gain of burying it. I conducted a (non-scientific) survey of pharma execs, communications experts and physicians recently and they all said the same thing: pharma needs to be more transparent, not less.
So, in healthcare, I would say that more transparency is a good thing. After all, if we (consumers) are being asked to take more responsibility for our healthcare, we need information that will enable us to make informed decisions.
I am not certain as to the case of healthcare. That's what I trust my doctor for.
I think that physicians will always play a central role in helping people manage their health. However, research indicates that patients are expecting their physicians to partner with them for better health rather than simply instructing (or telling) them what to do. Patients also want to know as much as they can about what procedures they will undergo, what drugs they are taking and what the risk-benefits associated with them are.
Some people (which from your comment I assume you are one of them) want their physicians to be solely responsible for their care. Others, want to partner with them. This is why I think that transparency is important. People need to have information about the drugs they take, the physicians they see and the hospitals they go to in order to become better stewards of their care. This is where medicine is going and people need information to be successful in this new world.
I defer to experts because I want them to make the decision. I hire tacticians to grocery shop and clean my apartment. I actually need more information with the latter.
That's fine. Everyone is entitled to deal with their healthcare as they see fit. However, as I said, some patients want to be involved in their decisions. Transparency is good for those types of people.
Agreed. But just so we are clear, their desire to be involved is probably driven my market distrust.
That egg comes before the chicken.
I think there's an added layer of transparency that may be overlooked here. Physicians aren't always the most objective experts, if one is to believe the latest rash of articles on pharma companies "incenting" docs to push their meds, as it were. There's a reason people get second, third and fourth opinions where medical matters are concerned (and still end up making healthcare decisions with two fingers crossed, and a third to the wind). They may be experts in label, but they've often got special interests of their own to serve.
Come on Amanda - you can do better than this. Truth - what's that other than my/your/anyone's perception of a particular set of events, words or whatever else is being subjected to a value judgment based on our worldview. Philosophy 101.
Do you really think the majority of people are so dumb as to be incapable of seeing thorugh indidividual bias? If you do then I fear you insult the intelligence of the many who aer quite capable of workinog out what's going on. Artiuculating it doesn't change the game -- unless of course you're gaming the system in the first place. Which you unashamedly do. (Name A-list blogger - dissect them - provoke comment - link bait - hey - I'm an A-lister.)
Having said that, SarBox has been seen as delivering business value - in some quarters - beyond the tax cost of compliance. That's about a level of compliance many welcome as a safety factor.
Finally - what no-one says is that no amount of transparency will prevent the determined criminal. And in that context, the US legislature and business in general might do well to consider its rules based approach to just about everything. It doesn't work in the long term.
PS - As always - the arguments are far more detailed than anything I've said.
"Truth - what's that other than my/your/anyone's perception of a particular set of events, words or whatever else is being subjected to a value judgment based on our worldview. Philosophy 101."
But where does the judgment come from? Does one rely on the expert or his or her self? If your think the average person is smart enough to make that judgment, you need to take a history course.
"Do you really think the majority of people are so dumb as to be incapable of seeing thorugh indidividual bias?"
"If you do then I fear you insult the intelligence of the many who are quite capable of working out what's going on."
It's a risk. Indeed. Especially inside the limited world of PR.
"Articulating it doesn't change the game -- unless of course you're gaming the system in the first place."
"SarBox has been seen as delivering business value - in some quarters - beyond the tax cost of compliance. That's about a level of compliance many welcome as a safety factor."
Certainly, there are many economists that would argue against the ultimate "value" of Sarbox. Tax is a good word. Unfortunately, it's a topic that exceeds this thread.
"Finally - what no-one says is that no amount of transparency will prevent the determined criminal. And in that context, the US legislature and business in general might do well to consider its rules based approach to just about everything. It doesn't work in the long term."
Agreed. I think. :)
Judgment - now there's a word. David Maister (serious management accoutning thinker, super smart, great read) and I are discussing this right now in the context of applying measures that arise out of social media as part of the overall 'measurement/judgment system' for companies seeking to mange in this 'new' world.
Although the discussion is mostly number crunching specific, we are debating the relative merits and endeavouring to iron out thinking around the 'judgment' issue as a corporate problem. Trust me, it's a lot easier to understand than you might think.
My post which links back to his is at the end - I'm not self promoting but it makes more sense tp see the discussion from this starting point: http://www.accmanpro.com/?p=726#comments
Sorry that your link doesn't appear as a link. I understand that the comment engine here strips out the html code for security.
That said, I do encourage all to cut and past the his link into your browser. Dennis' discussion is far more specific than mine here and absolutely worth a read.
I'd hope readers would see the corporate context - which has immediate relevance to PR/marketing.
The problem is that there are so many companies and people who clearly hide as much as possible in order to deceive. We shouldnt need transparancy, but often its forced on to us out of necessity in order to sway a balance between the honest and dishonest.
True, it wont dissuade all criminals, but it makes it a lot harder for them to exist; and prevent a lot of the small time crime that otherwise hides under the surface.
A good example: If they werent forced to tell us their ingredients, how many food manufacturers would put in dangerous amounts of additives or unhealthy ingredients to save money / alter taste. Not that they dont already of course...
What a fascinating topic. The study revealing a growing or pervasive suspicion of institutions, it seems, is a result of a recognition that truths have been sieved, selected and shaped by PR firms, advertisers, networks, trade groups etc.. It's an ancient game, of course, but now the consequences are too high. I'm sure some Enron employees would have appreciated a little transparency so they could do something about their disappearing retirements. Smokers might have benefitted from disclosure a little earlier than they got it. You can build your own list of "situational" disclosure here.
What you're talking about is the power of people to have a say about what they think, about what enters their brains and knowing where it comes from. Don't we crave this -- clean truth to analyze, interpret, and use as we see fit? I'd say so. We fast-forward through commercials. When a study about the benefits of, say beer, hits the wires, they check if the study was sponsored by the beer people.
Truth is the raw material of disclosure, and historically it's levels are adjusted by discipline. I expect an attempt at objective truth from journalism, half truths from PR, and no guarantee of truth from advertising. When no one carries that load, the world is just a minefield of propaganda, hence the Edelman study. I'm even getting suspicious of data in these days of search engine optimization and contextualized yada-yada.
In short, I think we crave and need as much unvarnished truth as we can get. Or as Elvis sang, "...we can't build our dreams on suspicious minds."
I think you are confusing truth and facts. Not necessarily the same. Often confused.
I absolutely need facts. Because, of course, I am smarter than my doctor. Of course, he's a swindler and I need to be watching him during the operation. I think his use of the Xerontic Pulsemaster was totally an extravagance and I intend to talk to him about it.
But for others, most others, that's not necessarily true. Take my mother (please). She is a deeply devout Catholic who thinks ALL of the problems of the Church today stem from when they turned the alter around and allowed guitars in the service.
As hard as it is for me to admit, I can see her point.
For the record, I like anonymity.
My next book features interviews from two anon. bloggers on why they blog anonymously.
But I still think you're a Troll! (i.e. a fearsome member of a mythical anthropomorph race), and as I literally come from a long line of goat herders I fear you!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled porgramming.