- August
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Transparency: truth in social media

I consider social media to be talk technologies, and I’ve been suspecting of late that the debate around “transparency” is a debate about communication. I say this only because transparency is sometimes used to describe branding, advertising, PR, marketing, corporate behavior, and of course, use of social media. All of these activities can possibly benefit, or suffer, from transparency.

Think of transparency and you see clarity. You see through the foil, the “grand gestures” (Deb Shultz), and the clever tactics of corporate marketing and PR. Transparency then describes how a brand relates to its cusomtomers.

Transparency certainly involves a company’s interactions with its customers. This impacts the customer’s experience, and thus idea, of the brand. From the customer’s perspective, you get what you see, and what you ask for, you sometimes get also. We sometimes call this authenticity, meaning that a company is sincere in its customer relationships and communication.

Company walls, too, become transparent &emdash; if not on the inside, then on the outside. Company disclosure is an element of transparency: companies that no longer try to conceal their inner workings, or which are “open” to sharing their activities with the outside world, are transparent. This kind of transparency involves the visibility of company actviities.

Then there is customer service. This, too, is a key feature in the new transparency. Here it generally means treating customers with respect, fairly and responsively (in a timely manner). This involves a kind of equality in relations, in the sense that, as the saying goes, the customer is always right. It’s transparency because it puts the company in its right place: not above, but in the service of, the customer. This is the rightness, the justice, or fairness of relations.

To return to the beginning, then, I find these different accounts of transparency interesting because they all involve “truth.” I deliberately avoid Colbert’s infamous claim to “truthiness,” because that is just the image of truth.

There are, in pragmatics (a branch of linguistics), three claims to truth made in all our communication:

  • a claim to truth as fact (something is true about reality)
  • a claim to truthfulness (somebody is sincere, means what s/he says)
  • and a claim to authority (somebody is allowed to claim what s/he claims, e.g. has the social position or authority)

These aspects of truth in communication underlie the concept of transparency.

Transparency is:

  • truth in brand communication and behavior: factual accuracy, full disclosure, no manipulation, denial, misrepresentation of the truth
  • truthfulness in brand intent: authentic self-representation, genuine, sincere, and honest communication, behavior with integrity, respect, and understanding (including the listening part)
  • truth as the right to speak and act: respect for laws and norms, codes of conduct, etiquette, shown by associating with the brand’s own community, audience, and marketplace as an equal participant committed to a shared and common future, sustainably and compassionately

I suspected that transparency had something to do with communication when it became virtually interchangeable with authenticity. These are terms we use in describing people, and trust, especially. They apply to people because they involve intentions, actions, speech, behavior: human stuff, deeply social stuff.

We might in fact say that transparency is really about humanizing for-profit companies. That as professionals, and as consumers, we ask for transparency in corporate behavior because it is what we expect from state and government behavior: accountability. In other words, transparency is in the zeitgeist.

One final thought. For transparency is not all that it’s cracked up to be, for all and at all times equally. As tax payers, it is a citizen’s right to expect accountability in government actions.

Companies that sell products, and which use their brand reputation to do so, are paid by consumers for their products. There is no social contract, but an exchange of money. In other words, the brand that embraces transparency does so in its own self interest. I’m not saying that this invalidates corporate transparency, but that it complicates it. Social media may want to be used authentically. But companies and brands are unlikely to embrace full transparency.


  • Theoretically, you're right on, this is an excellent depiction of how these terms are being thrown around and perceived.

    The most fundamental problem however is that simply by taking place through a medium, it is already mediated and manipulated. By the technology, by the context of both the sender and receiver, and the perceptions of both parties.

    This isn't any different than Jean-Luc Godard's “Photography is truth. The cinema is truth 24 times per second.” When you think about it, the statement reveals that the only truth is 24FPS. Everything else is perceived truth: by the creator, and by the viewer.

    Fact is, people don't really want actual transparency or authenticity in social media, from brands or each other. They want more people-involvement. The Web, up until a few years ago, was the epitome of automation and efficiency.

    To me, “social media” “Transparency” and “authenticity” are ways of saying, “Show me people.” I think in many ways social media is societal backlash against the last 30 years of first-world corporate era, the age of the mega-company and its many sub-companies with hordes of productivity-driven employees at every level.

    Unlike one-to-millions spokepeople (which are still plenty useful), there's a lot of value in one-to-tens or -hundreds or -thousands communication. It doesn't mean you know anything more about that person, but that you can project your own perceptions through a digital channel and have something pleasing and identifiable, (and maybe even meaningful) come back.

    Right now, social marketing is really people marketing. The people who create the product are part of what helps to sell it. Going back to when I had a local meat company as a client in the mid-90's, they wanted to offer transparency in their TV ads, straight from the floor. Would this complete authenticity be lauded?

  • Michael, funny, my next post in this miniseries is “Against Transparency.” Not only is transparency oversold and underperforming, it's simply not appropriate in all settings equally. People like boundaries, boundaries, like structure, not only constrain — they enable, too.

    Great godard quote — though it's Godard, who revealed the productive process as part of the film itself: transparency or simply shifting the frame?

    I wanted to bring transparency around to communication — because i dont think this is about being able to see into the org. Agree w/ you, it's about people. But as communication, we need to think (brands need to think) in terms of time, engagement, narration, reciprocity — stuff that takes resources to do right, and mutual commitments.

    There's a tendency in advertising to think image, not talk/interaction, and it's that which I wanted to emphasize. Brands don't get to be socially mediated just by means of a transparent brand image. We're way past the world of truth in images. (We may also be way past truth in communication, also…)

  • I love that you've brought the conversation around from attributes (authenticity, transparency…to which I'd add credibility and integrity) to actions. For it is through our actions–and in the case of social media, those actions are communications–that we reveal who we are, whether as people or as organizations.

    The claims for authenticity and transparency are laden with value judgments. Not only are we trying to humanize organizations, we want them to be humans like us. We want them to align to the same moral or ethical code that we do, we want them to interact according to our own (and often unacknowledged) rules of communication and communication style, we want them to reflect how we see ourselves.

    Most of that kind of attention is directed to the biggest, and therefore most monolithic, corporations. Perhaps that's because, particularly with companies like Wal-Mart and Comcast, we are sometimes put in a position of having to use a company or buy its products due to lack of choice, whether due to availability or economics or something else.

    But a company can never be all things to all people–the minute it defines its values, it leaves others out. So what's better? To be actively transparent so consumers can actively figure out whether they can or can't continue to do business with you based on your values and practices, or to be passively transparent and let your interactions (and what others say about you in social media and other channels) reveal your values so that same evaluation can occur?

    How long before there's no between active and passive transparency?

    Tamsen (@tamadear, @Sametz)

  • Tamsen,

    Great comment and interesting question! I wonder if the answer might
    be faceted branding. Companies are, transparency notwithstanding,
    still a screen onto which we project our attitudes and expectations.
    It's not so much the company's view of itself, but the view its
    customers have of the brand, that matters most. Multi-faceted branding
    would permit a company to approach its brand in some cases as image,
    in some as story, in some as values, in some as quality, in some as
    price, in some as relationship…

    And transparency, if it really were a paradigm change in how companies
    operate and brand, ought to be double-sided. Or so it seems to me.
    Listening plays a part in this: perceiving and responding to customer
    interests, needs, expectations, and so on, as discovered through use
    of social media (for example). And that's one of the reasons I think
    transparency is really about communication. Again, the paradigm shift
    is meant in earnest, conversational media ought to be used
    conversationally — that is, with reciprocity and mutual interest and
    respect driving that conversation.

    A company is only as good as its ability to perceive market forces
    accurately. That would be your passive transparency. Active
    transparency would describe the company's response: informed,
    strategic, proactive, and shaped by the customer's interest. There's
    only risk and hubris for the company that ignores forces acting on it
    and on its market.

    (Market forces act on companies daily if the stock market is taken
    into account — but the stock market isn't a form of communication,
    and shareholder relationships are a simple binary — individual owns
    or doesnt own stock. Conversational relationships with customers are
    different: they're dynamic and flexible, and the individual of
    interest to the company may be a past, present, or future consumer. So
    the means by which a company attracts, engages, and responds to
    customers can be multi-faceted and rich. In the age of communication
    technologies, this suggests to me that brands leave behind the notion
    of brand as image and adopt instead a brand as facets: including
    image, stories, conversations, service, and all of that… )


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