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.
- 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.