Stepping Away From Hail Mary Transparency

January 21, 2010
By Lisa Barone in Branding

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.

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