By Judith Delaney, Attorney and member of Agnes + Day’s Crisis Intelligence Team
Let’s talk about the word transparency. A word that, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary was first used in 1591.
In the good old days before web 2.0, when a crisis happened it was common practice for an organization to withhold information, particularly if the information was incomplete or involved an organization’s Intellectual Property (e.g. trademarks, patents, trade secrets) or Confidential Information. This generally was done to give the organization time to fully investigate the situation to either resolve internally or if the public needed to be aware to provide factual, proven and therefore non-biased information, good or bad, that allowed those affected to move on.
Enter the digital age.
Almost everyone has some sort of digital device – a smart phone, a social media page such as Facebook or Twitter, etc.
The meanings of confidentiality and common sense have become passé in this world. All types of information is up for grabs. In other words, if there is bad news hitting an organization it’s difficult, if not impossible, for that organization to keep it from the whole world for very long.
And if it does try to batten down the hatches to have time to assess the situation in order to disseminate the information in as truthful and factual way possible, the result almost always is that it is perceived as being secretive or having something to hide. That they are not being transparent.
Read: What is your Ideal Crisis Response Time?
Think Malaysia Airlines. An unprecedented crisis happened. Yet, the world expected to be told everything immediately (and I mean immediately) about the information the it had, or had gathered, from other sources. The expectation being that it would of course be credible. Time? Why would they need time? This is 2014. We want the answers NOW. We want the truth NOW.
The problem with all of that is:
- For most people in this world of today, the truth is what they want to hear or read not what is reality; and
- The word transparency has no definitive meaning to the demands of an instantaneous prone world.
This makes the use of the word “transparency” in the context of unrealistic expectations in this digital world a disaster. Unless the organization has the moxie to set the expectations.
Setting “transparent” expectations
Think Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting. Again, an unprecedented crisis (at least in the United States) happened. The world expected to be told everything immediately (and I mean immediately) about the information the Sheriff and other law enforcement departments had, or had gathered, from other sources.
Instead, the lead law enforcement department in the investigation immediately set the bar:
First, they expressed their sorrow and sympathy to those affected by this horrific event (which is something that always needs to come first and foremost in a tragic crisis). They then acknowledged that they understood that the world wanted to know the “truth” immediately.
They proceeded to define “immediate” as acknowledging the event and giving the press and the world a schedule/timeline for holding briefings to relay the FACTS as concluded from the information as it was gathered.
This organization never buckled in to the pressure of speculative reporting or information because the public insisted on being informed. They always told the truth even when the truth was that there was nothing to report because they were still investigating a particular aspect of the event and had no definitive FACTS.
Note: There is nothing wrong with coming back and saying that “there is no new news to report at this time”. It’s honest and timely – even though some may not see it as being “transparent”, it’s transparency in all of its definitions.
The world calmed down because:
- The information, or the fact of no information, was shared frequently
- Nothing but real time information was provided
- It was made it clear from the beginning who was in charge of the investigation
As a result, in the end, the true meaning of transparency as it pertains to crisis communications is clarity and fact-based communications. To do this, you must set boundaries of how your organization is going to provide the information publicly from the beginning, resulting in a calm, meticulous sharing with the world the the truth of what happened and what you’re doing about it.
There’s no question that it’s important to inform the public of what/how/and why things happen that affect them. To be transparent. It has been this way since 1591 – long before web 2.0.
However, it is important for the public to understand that transparency requires time and happens upon the release of accurate information. This is not something that is available as quickly as they demand for it.
Perhaps it is time to remove this overused, misunderstood word “transparency” from the vocabulary of the web.
Perhaps it is time to go back to the real meaning of transparency: That the truth shall set you free no matter how long it may take to find it.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is provided only as general information and may or may not reflect the most current legal developments; accordingly, this information is not promised or guaranteed to be correct or complete and is not intended to create, or constitute formation of, an attorney-client relationship. The author expressly disclaims all liability in law or otherwise in respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all the contents of this chapter or related information.
Judith Delaney is an attorney who specializes in global online privacy laws and issues and social media law. Judith helps organizations integrate new media strategies with business strategies to effectively manage risk associated with online compliance such as the HIPPA Omnibus Rule, global social media private and data protections and contract risk management.
Ken Coach says
An excellent post.
In my many years of crisis communications, the conventional wisdom has been to say "I'm sorry, I've fixed it and it's never going to happen again." The digital age is now demanding that those things be said on the day the event takes place which is, of course, impossible. What can be done however is to take responsibility at the outset and to give a commitment (in words and actions) to transparency.
I recently had that opportunity to speak with Jonathan Bernstein, of Bernstein Crisis Management. We talked a lot about "transparency" and the influx of social media outlets over the past five years. I agree that social media has definitely created negative expectations of being "transparent" in terms of speed of information. Social media has contributed to the "information now" mentality, which in most cases isn't even about being transparent, but a matter of availability.