Stepping Away From Hail Mary Transparency


It’s no secret that I am quite fond of Ezra Butler from 1938 Media. Twitter flirting aside, over the past few months he’s become someone I can confide in. He thinks very similarly and he ‘gets me’ as well as he can considering we’ve never actually met. [Ezra lives in a faraway place called Israel]. That said, this week we’ve been in a bit of a tiff.

Earlier this week, Ezra spoke about how he feels businesses view transparency in a post cleverly-named, Transparency and the Art of the Happy Ending. In the post, Ezra concludes that companies subscribe to a Hail Mary idea of transparency, where transparency is nothing more than a last ditched effort to save face and earn PR. As consumers, we can’t handle the real truth; we just want the happy ending. Ezra says that transparency in business is bullshit.

I think that line of thinking is bullshit.

I don’t think that Ezra is entirely wrong. I don’t disagree that far too many companies are using the idea of ‘transparency’ as a Hail Mary. They ignore customers all throughout the decision-making process and then get on their knees when the shit hits the fan and they have no other option. When they’re left with the decision to ‘own up’ to what happened or risk being outed by someone else, they’re instructed by their PR agencies to own up. It’s a blogger who apologizes but doesn’t allow comments. It’s the child admitting he broke into the cookie jar when he has a face full of chocolate. It’s Ezra admitting he’s the reason there’s no event footage when people go asking questions or when he needs an idea for a blog post. That’s not transparency; that’s called owning up under pressure. It impresses no one.

What is transparency in business?

  • It’s expressing your intentions in a clear, honest way.
  • It’s sticking to core values.
  • It’s asking for feedback and letting people become part of the process.
  • It’s about opening the window to your team and exposing the organization.
  • It’s about being honest about your relationships – with customers, vendors and everyone else.
  • It’s about telling your story and not leaving out really important parts.
  • It’s about sharing the good and the bad and the every day.

It’s about letting people know what your company stands for and how you strive to make good on that, even if you sometimes fail.

There’s a difference between companies that view transparency as a way out and those that live it as a core value. And it’s not bullshit when you do the latter. It is bullshit when you do it like Comcast. When you’re around for the happy ending, but disappear at all other times.

Like it or not, as a brand you have no choice but to live a transparent life. Because it’s not just about numbers and business anymore, it’s about culture. The Internet has changed the way we interact with brands and turned the power shift upside down. You can’t be the Microsoft of the ‘90s. That walled approach to company culture doesn’t fly. It makes us think you’re hiding something when you don’t live in front of your audience. When you don’t believe enough in your company to give us the full story. When you focus solely on the ending and are too afraid to get naked in front of us.

As a business, I’d recommend you take a look at your own company and find ways where you can open up and expose yourself a little bit more. Maybe it’s explaining the values behind your company, maybe it’s adding video of daily operations to your site, maybe it’s sharing funny (and not so funny) encounters on your blog, asking for help when you need it, or tweeting when you’re having a really bad day and letting it all hang out.

I know that Ezra says people only care about that ‘happy ending’, but you can’t appreciate the ending without the full story. The story is what matters. If you’re a meat packaging company, I think people do want to go inside the slaughterhouses with you. They want to see the conditions. They want to see how you’re treating the animals. Do they want the final death scene? Maybe some of them do. And those that don’t still want more than just the ending and the burger that ends up on their plate wrapped in a gluten-free bun. Just giving them the ending is selfish. It’s the story that matters and its being transparent that tells it. Or at least that’s always been our belief.

Update: Someone pointed me to a Twitip article about the benefits of running a social business. I think much of it applies here.

Your Comments

  • graywolf

    > It’s a blogger who apologizes but doesn’t allow comments.

    Listen I really think most bloggers are dopes, the only reason I’m going to turn on comments is because in that particular case it will get me more traffic/links.

    How’s that for transparency … or I could bring up that politically correct thought leadership buzzterm again if you prefer it.

  • DanielthePoet

    Hmm.. Well, first, let me say that I agree with you. Second, I must state the obvious: 95% of existing companies won’t accept transparency because their company was built upon the precept of profit at any cost. Very limited is the best you can expect because the truth is, if you KNEW what Coca Cola does to your body, or what synthetic oil does to the environment, or how many children have physical ailments because of chemicals used, you’d NEVER buy their products or services again.

    The only companies who boldy enter into the arena of transparency are companies who are actually PROUD of what they do and how they do it. They’ll make their share of mistakes, but their business is built upon sound human-friendly principles.

    Of course, now that I’ve said this, someone will point out an idiot brand out there somewhere which is destroying itself through transparency. I’m sure it will happen eventually if not already.

    • Lisa Barone

      Agreed with you on big brands like Coke, Microsoft, etc. But those are Legacy Brands. They’re companies that were built back when we didn’t have these new outlets and the big dogs ran the shots.

      I think the companies and the startups being formed today ARE built on transparency and opening things up as much as they can because they’ve seen the results of that and they know that giving away their big secret often gets them more buzz, appeal and cash than trying to hide it. The model has been totally turned upside down.

  • Jason

    Ok, maybe I am just really stupid, but I don’t get it – why do brands have to live a transparent life?

    I hear people say all the time that the Internet is forcing more companies to be transparent, but in the end, but I don’t see any evidence that that statement’s actually true. What makes people think customers want their brand to to get naked in front of them.

    I’m not trying to be a smartass here, I am just genuinely curious – i hear these sentiments all the time, but I haven’t seen a lot of examples where the market has supported that sentiment

    • Lisa Barone

      Hey Jason, no one thinks you’re being a smart ass. :)

      I think the idea of transparency and opening up the gates has helped a lot of startups to find their communities. I’ll use Outspoken Media as an example just so I’m not dissecting anyone else. As a new player in the space, being open and letting people see how we do things, what we represent and our (sometimes offensive) thought processes has been a huge differentiator for us and it’s why people seek us out. They come to us feeling like they already know who we are and they trust we’re not going to screw them over. I don’t know that we’d have the audience or clients we have if we had tried to be secretive about things or NOT be as open as we are. It’s allowed people to get to know us a lot faster, which then results in clients and more leads.

  • Alec Perkins

    I think that the ‘ask for feedback and share the process’ aspect of transparency can’t be emphasized enough. It’s one thing to put out videos that give tours of the office. It’s another thing entirely to actively encourage employees to reach out to users and engage them directly. A true transparent culture is transparent in both directions; employees are allowed to reach out and users are allowed to reach in. This gives the company a level of authenticity that’s very hard to artificially duplicate.

    Dustin Curtis has a great example of transparency win on the part of an American Airlines employee, followed promptly by complete transparency fail on the part of American Airlines itself:
    (Short story: the employee was fired for explaining why the website was desiged the way it was and that improvements were in the pipeline. He was honest about the company and was terminated for it.)

    Also, being transparent allows for more complete control of the message. If a company is putting itself out there and is proud of what it does, then it doesn’t have to worry about some investigative journalist exposing its darkest secrets. Companies exposed in this way lose control of the transparency that occurs.

    Off the top of my head I can’t think of any brands that have suffered because of willful transparency. As far as I’m aware brands that actually practice transparency, beyond owning up after the fact, are rewarded for it. However, I can think of PLENTY that were destroyed because of involuntary transparency.

    • Lisa Barone

      Off the top of my head I can’t think of any brands that have suffered because of willful transparency.

      I think that’s because when your MO with your company is to be as transparent as you can, it’s evident in your behavior and the way that you handle situations and people. Kind of like how you suddenly slow down when you see a cop on the road. :)

  • Carolyn Schlicher

    I appreciate graywolf’s honestly, but I think it exemplifies what I tend to think: women consumers seem to value transparency more than males. I value transparency from a company enough that I’ll prefer them over competitors, especially when I see them sticking to core values and taking responsibility for their actions.

    • Lisa Barone

      I’m hesitant to make it a gender question, just because I know guys who are very into checking a company out before they get involved with them, but it could be that women are more inclined to care. I try to avoid gender wars. :p

  • SEO Mofo

    I gotta go with Ezra on this one.

    The problem with total transparency 100% of the time…is that the average person doesn’t understand it nor appreciate it. Quite frankly, the general population can’t be trusted with unlimited information.

    Very few businesses would exist at all if they were 100% transparent. The tricky part is figuring out where to drawn the line–how much information is “enough” and how much is “too much”? The Hail Mary approach to transparency addresses this question by applying one of the most fundamental rules of business: pick the one that makes the most money.

    Transparency in business is inherently bullshit because the motivation behind it always boils down to money. Even the companies with the most transparency have chosen that level of transparency because it benefits their business. In this regard, there is no real difference between the company that tells the whole story and the company that throws Hail Marys. Both are acting in their own self-interests…and neither would sacrifice themselves solely for the sake of “being honest.”

    • Lisa Barone

      So in college I took some sort of human behavior class (I think it was human behavior). And I remember we had a discussion once on if anything could ever really be labeled altruistic. Labeling it altruistic means it is selfless, but if you do something selfless it makes you feel good…which is therefore not so selfless, right? I feel like I’m about to relive that discussion.

      Obviously people want to increase their bottom line and being transparent is often a way to do that, especially if you’re a young company. That said, I think it belittles companies to say the only reason their doing it is to pad their bank accounts and that it’s unnatural. If that’s the ONLY thing you’re interested in, then you’re a pretty shitty company, IMO. There are other motives for opening things up – sometimes its to improve the product (ie be better), to understand the audience, to get a gauge of how they’re doing or to look for new fields to enter. The ultimate goal may be to improve business, but you can’t always pretend that’s the only intent. There are OTHER currencies out there beside just dollars and cents.

      What you call bullshit, I view as building a concerned brand.

    • Jon Kern

      Wow, SEO Mofo…

      — “People are too stupid to understand…”
      — “Transparency is BS because it might not only be the right thing to do and also make a profit?”

      Next you’ll tell us that centralized State planning by the elite ruling party (the only truly smart citizens) leads to an enlightened nation without the natural forces of “making money”…

  • Alan Bleiweiss


    This is why I refuse to ever wear suits or ties, or even dress-shirts most of the time, to meetings with prospective clients. That type of clothing is the furthest thing from who I truly am, so why should I put on a false front? It’s why I’m not afraid to tell them to feel free to follow me on Twitter, but that in doing so they’re going to see the unvarnished me. And it’s why I admire you and Outspoken Media.

  • Karri Flatla

    So why can’t good intentions and profit mesh together? Why the dichotomy?

    Spot on post, Lisa. Well done.

  • Bob Gray

    I’m with you, but I think it also “depends” on the corporate culture.

    Many Companies and Governments have wandered far from the straight and narrow, and been “caught” wandering… so the only way they can try to claw back is to start throwing around the T word.

    Companies that post policies, have clearly visible rules that make good common sense, and are looking for a win/win with their partners… the ones who truly are transparent… will prosper.

    The others… who talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk ? They will eventually stumble over themselves in the murk.

    I believe Karma works, more slowly perhaps, but just as effectively, in business.

  • Karri Flatla

    Chocolate chip please, the chewy kind :)

  • Karri Flatla

    @Alec Actually was thinking there is no reason at all that profit can’t be a transparent goal itself … especially tho if your work is meaningful and contributes positively to the lives of those you serve. No?

    • Alec Perkins

      It’s entirely possible for a company to have the primary goal of maximum profit while also being completely transparent. It just seems that transparency is a problem for many companies because their ways of making the profit don’t jibe with a transparent culture, or might turn people off.

      If the goal is maximum profit, transparency can potentially be a liability. If the goal is make the best or most helpful product or service possible, with profit being seen more as a ‘side-effect’ of sorts, transparency is an asset and can only help.


  • Jon Kern

    written communication is easy when the topics are not involving conflict/misunderstanding. at that point, it is far too easy for both parties (lisa & ezra) to misunderstand each other). throw in potentially different cultures, and it doesn’t get any better… in such circumstances, it can often be helpful to “check assumptions” before going off full tilt on a possibly erroneous path.

    i read ezra’s piece, and i didn’t think that any of the “transparency” examples were what i would even refer to as “transparency.” but that’s kinda my point. maybe we don’t use the word in a similar manner…

    but, it sure was a good enough reason for you to write a nice post :-)

    personally, i prefer to use the term “always be visible” over “be transparent” when it comes to running s/w dev projects… but for companies and governments, transparency means being open to all.

  • Nick Gowdy

    I’ve got to go with Ezra on this one, “…the real problem with complete transparency is that most people do not know how to decipher it…”

    A little information can be a dangerous thing, because your customers start to fill in the gaps for themselves. Unless you’re Sunshine & Rainbows, Inc., there are things you can tell your customers that, in a vacuum, would frighten them. Hell, I’m betting Sunshine & Rainbows have some skeletons, too… unicorn skeletons.

    Personally, unless it’s giong to harm me to not know, or it’s morally reprehensible, I’d rather the companies I do business with don’t show me their nasty underbits. To roll with the naked analogy, there are a lot of people I simply do not want to see with their pants around their ankles. I don’t want to hear your story about why it looks that way or what kind of medicine you’re taking for it, just put your clothes back on, wash your hands, and we can all get back to doing business.