Categories: CSR reality check

26 October 2009


Transparency is the new opaque?

This post is a reaction to Paul Holmes’s post Transparency is a principle, not a tool for manipulating the public. His headline was much more one-sided than his text, which was well-argued. So what comes next is a critique of the Big Idea of his headline, not his considered view.

The first time I considered transparency as an issue was as an eighteen year-old reading Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son. One of them contains this 18th century nugget that I’ve never forgotten:

“Without some dissimulation no business can be carried out at all. It is simulation that is false. Dissimulation is only to hide your cards.”

When I read Paul’s piece it was that quote that came to mind. There are often good reasons not to be too transparent even in public service, I thought.

Consider gays in the US military. The Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) is a semi-official licence designed to encourage opaqueness in the military. Personally, I favour the right of gays to serve openly, but if one is going to fudge the issue this seems to be almost an acceptable way to do so. It may be inadequate to purists, but it was a halfway decent staging-post to somewhere more honest (and may be not all that superior).

Or consider collective responsibility in government, as did The Times’s Danny Finkelstein in last Sunday’s edition of Westminster Hour on BBC Radio 4. He said that politicians who always speak their minds honestly cannot be good colleagues, because party government depends on the necessarily artificial device of assuming that there is a collegiate view.

Or consider the necessity of ordinary social deceit. The “Does my bum look big in this?” dilemma faces many people.

Or consider whether a schoolboy owes respect to a headmaster who has not yet (in the boy’s view or that of his father) “earned” it. Well, there is a necessary hypocrisy which suggests that respect is owed ex officio. (See Rod Liddle, Sunday Times, 26 October 2009.)

Or consider the politician who in public espouses infant vaccination but can’t get his spouse to allow it on his own baby? Must he be forced to come clean about the status of his own child?

These cases make me feel that transparency may or may not be valuable in this or that circumstance, but also that it is a new species of infantilism to think that transparency is always and everywhere a Good Thing as a matter of principle.

Perhaps, though, transparency is a decent principle for governance? Again, I think not. Transparency could actually be very bad for corporate and political governance. It may produce the unintended consequence of driving all serious deliberations and decisions deep underground  (off-the-record management that’s not accountable to anybody, ever etc.).

When it comes to managing public finances I agree wholeheartedly that transparency is increasingly hard to argue against. But surely, there’s something wrong when transparency in the UK results in the controversial backdated caps on MPs’ expenses recommended by auditor Sir Thomas Legg? Of course in that case – and there are many – the problem isn’t the transparency but the childishness which greeted the facts it revealed.(Too many of the public were unable to cope with the idea that they were contributing to their legislators’ lifestyles.)

I doubt that forcing people to reveal the “truth” will lead to either party (the informant or the informee) becoming wiser or nicer, at least not quickly.

There’s a very real danger that people will simply lie, or be forced to dissemble with greater and greater sophistication. Or they will become mealy-mouthed, say-nothing niceness cyphers.

Indeed, more transparency can only work well if we all become more and more indifferent to the information we increasingly glean. If we do get to the position where everyone knows everything about our finances (or our sexual orientation), we will also need to be in the position of saying, “So what?” to those who make a big deal of these things (or seek to bully or blackmail us). But there is something very authoritarian about arriving there. Surely, some things are personal, or secret for good political and commercial reasons, and revealing them should not be a public requirement?

As Paul Holmes rightly says on his blog, “transparency is less and less tenable as a strategy, because information has a way of fighting free of constraints….” What does this mean for PRs? I think it means that we need to push back on the demand for transparency as a principle. We should be very specific when we use the term and seek to identify when and where it is best to advocate or reject its use.

Otherwise, I fear, transparency is doomed to become the new opaque, and that wouldn’t be honest, would it?

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10 responses to “Transparency is the new opaque?”

  1. Peter Walker says:

    Well I am all for principles but it is worth remembering that no lawyer with a clients’ interests at heart would let anyone litigate on the basis of a principle. Transparency has become one of those ‘words’ of the moment. It expresses an ill defined concept that anyone can buy into as long as they can interpret what they think it means for themselves.

    Public Relations is a management function and like all management functions what it does and the way that it does it must be accountable – it is accountability that we need as part of the tool kit of governance. Transparency no matter how you define the concept is not accountability though there are some, particularly in government and among the NGO’s who would have you believe the two are interchangeable.

    Transparency is not the opposite deception of transparency – that’s honesty. Deceitful and duplicitous people and organisations should be held to account not asked to be transparent.

    There is plenty of evidence to show that you can’t change behaviour just by providing more information – being transparent about energy consumption, CO2 emissions, fat or salt content at best it will stimulate awareness and as they say at MIT ‘a latent propensity to action’. It is why public relations as a management function is so successful. It is the function that creates the bridge between a latent propensity and action.

    Let’s attempt to be open and honest in all we do, recognising , like Lord Chersterfield that that there are good reasons for there being sensible limits but let’s make sure that in all we do we can be held accountable and are prepared to be accountable. That’s good business, that’s good public relations practice.

    Peter L. Walker

  2. Sean Williams says:

    Paul – what an interesting post. The concept of transparency (as the term is being used now) seems to be equal with honesty. As in, “if you’re not transparent, you’re not being honest.” But civilization depends on a certain amount of willing falseness — politesse being a notable example. The polite habits of the 1950’s are frequently dismissed and disparaged as undesirable “fakery” — as though everyone should be able to say exactly what they think at any time. Witness the 1960’s spasm of youth, discarding “middle class values” in favor of some type of perceived authenticity that manifests as long hair and beards, India-cotton drawstring pants, barefooted, unwashed and unemployed.

    Werner Erhard’s EST sought to unburden people from the concept of concern for others in their interactions — calling someone an a$$hole, for example, was lauded as simply being honest.

    Amanda Chapel is fond of saying that PR and advertising is, at heart, lying — with the receiver knowing that this lying is happening and agreeing to listen and be moved nonetheless. Can you imagine the chaos if banks, for example, had their books open constantly for review? Short-term thinking would seem a halcyon past by comparison. The ability to focus on one aspect and dissuade people from looking at others might be somewhat opaque, and even be called lying — but isn’t that the essence of persuasion?

    Finally, if everyone is transparent, how will we make sense of the gargantuan stream of undifferentiated information? We already are dangerously close to true overload, when we trust no source but our own tribe regardless of authority, education, fact or opinion. Transparency will make this problem more difficult, not easier if it’s taken too far.

    Quite thought-provoking.


  3. Roman of AirObserver says:

    Transparency is a principle that firm likes to promote, but at the same time I think that they are afraid of this “dogma”. And I wonder if social web is able to force them anyways to be more transparent.

  4. marc mullen says:

    Remember that principles lead to practice, but are not practice themselves. As a parent, I’ve done everything I can to instill transparency in my relationship with my children (principle) – but different information is provided by me to them (and, it turns out, to me by them) at different ages. And when it is provided, it is provided at an age-appropriate level (practice).

    I have a friend who is delightfully inappropriate in her communication skills, asking for or providing the most inappropriate information at the most inappropriate times. She has mastered the principle, but consistently fails the practice. She is not a professional communicator, fortunately.

    The principle of transparency applies to any decision to make additional information publicly available, assuming the same underlying ethos (we will provide all the information we can as soon as we can). In practice, information and context have to ride the same horse – so recipients can understand, assimilate and act on the information provided. We need the bias to communicate, and the wisdom to communicate appropriately.

    The rub is that we usually apply self interest to the equation, and make communication decisions based on our needs rather than our stakeholders’ needs. This is where we get caught being opaque (the opposite of transparent?). Borrowing Peter’s argument, we need to make accountable decisions that can be explained (or defended as necessary), in the context that we will communicate.

    In today’s communication environment, information WILL become available, and the real question is which will be most damaging: the information itself or the fact you chose not to share it. The only protection against the latter is a justifiable and defendable communication record.

    If we can all get to a ‘will communicate’ practice, our profession and ethics should guide the actual practice of communication.

  5. Sean Williams says:

    Marc makes a good point here —

    “In today’s communication environment, information WILL become available, and the real question is which will be most damaging: the information itself or the fact you chose not to share it. The only protection against the latter is a justifiable and defendable communication record.”

    — I’d offer that the situation and objectives matter most in that calculus. The information we release that is relevant to our situation and in line with our objectives is most important. There is a giant pool of information that we could release (in the name of “transparency”), but if it’s irrelevant to the public in question, there’s no point — all we’re doing is increasing the distraction level. There surely is a class of information that requires so much context, explanation and understanding that it deserves its own strategy.

    Marc’s comment, also, regarding self-interest, is interesting — we typically have something we want our publics to think, feel or do as a consequence of our communication. The communication activity has to have a goal — otherwise, it’s just noise.


  6. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by CommAMMO: MUST READ. quite thought-provoking. RT @paulseaman: On my PR blog now: Transparency is the new opaque?

  7. toni muzi falconi says:

    Like many other words, transparency is a mantra used for many purposes.
    For a public relator, who needs to be very careful in selecting the words he cooses to communicate with, I believe s/he is transparent when she:
    – says who s/he is
    – clearly states who s/he represents
    – illustrates the objectives s/he intends to pursue through a specific relationship
    – if the norms allow it, also says how s/he intends to pursue that objective.

    Too simple? Too easy?
    What do you say?

  8. Paul Seaman says:

    Toni, I say simple equals clarity and that complexity often hides nonsense.

  9. Boyd Neil says:

    Transparency doesn’t have to be a principle; but it is increasingly an expectation. It also makes considerable sense when the tools are there to ‘out’ the recalcitrant and the deceitful.

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