The Death of Transparency

Looking back at the 8 years of blogging (and now social media - well, take that back 15 years to Usenet and enthusiast site days), there are a few things that become evident: nothing really changes, but everything changes.

One of the things that's become very obvious recently, though, is the death of transparency. Well, maybe dying or dead is a bit hyperbolic, but transparency is fast becoming a thing of the past as more and more people push their own agenda and conveniently ignore transparency for their own goals. You can see it on Twitter, on Facebook - especially Facebook groups - on Quora, and naturally on blog posts. It's a not-so-hidden agenda that comes out after 2 or 3 tweets, or an "innocent" question in a Facebook group or Quora that leads to a "miraculous" answer that is the person's own company or client.

Transparency used to be a big issue for bloggers. Well, at least for the public relations bloggers. One of the first bigger discussions of it came about because of character blogs. Many people, including Steve Rubel (whom I argued with about the issue) and Robert Scoble (who used to be a Moose) felt that character blogs were bad things. Character blogs weren't fully disclosed, they weren't honest or transparent. This mainly came about because of the launch of the Captain Morgan blog and the "controversy" it created.

(As a side-note, I would have linked to the discussion on Steve's blog ... but he's killed his original blogs. Beyond raising questions on the issues of dead links across the web, does the full deletion of a blog and its archives smack of the dismissal of transparency? Does it fit into my whole view of the death of transparency?)

As the years passed, it seems amusing that this would be an issue. We have characters on Twitter and Facebook and while we know that they are not real, we accept them as the entertainment they are and applaud brands for engaging their audiences - the right audiences - in any way you can reach them. Nobody would attack Jack In the Box as lacking transparency because it's understood that it's a brand talking to its fans, engaging on Facebook or Twitter.

Me? I looked at the situation with meh, and that we (the PR bloggers and other early bloggers) weren't the audience, but it was for college students (of legal drinking age, naturally). And did they care about transparency when it came to a character? Not really, it was just something fun.

I was - and still am - hyper about transparency. Call it the egalitarian in me, or the Libra. Back in the day, too often I would see people tout articles on their blogs as "amazing" or "great insight" and then click through to see ... it was self promotion. My point-of-view then, and now, is that it's not hard to tag a blog post as self-promotion, or even a Tweet with #me or some hashtag. The question on transparency there then and now is if it's a great article because the person is in it, or would be a great article that they would have posted or Tweeted without the quote. My guess is the former ... hence my calls for transparency or honesty.

But this all seems quaint - as transparency disappears. I'm not talking about disclosure - the FTC holy grail - but transparency. Dare I say it, but does transparency not matter anymore? Is it - gasp - dead?! And while I think many people do care about transparency (well for others, not themselves), is it a low priority issue for us as we have, well, real life things to worry about (work, personal, love, etc). Transparency, in the scheme of things, is a small issue many of us don't have the time to process.

The world was much easier when it was just PR people that were concerned with this (it's not ironic that the Morgan blog was done by an ad firm - if memory serves). We could debate the issues in our academic way, and come to an agreement that while transparency is important, we all can do it in our own way (which never really works anyway).

And because we all had the background in PR, the transparency issue wasn't an issue that we took lightly - now we would accuse one another of not being transparent or disclosing things, but it was still pretty much above the board. As an aside, I know someone is going to comment that my view on transparency is in contradiction to my view on whisper campaigns - which isn't true. You don't need to be nontransparent to whisper - in fact, it's better to be upfront that this is for company X.

But yes, that is where public relations has always been above the board: we tend to be transparent with the public and press for our clients. We share news and information, and tell the story. As opposed to other marketing practices.

Lately, though, I am starting to see too many PR and SM people trying to be clever or subtle while fishing for information ... and doing it just to get a client mention or have others do work for them. Not very transparent. Or posting tweets about a client article ... with no disclosure it's about a client. Public relations is losing its center, forgetting it's the storyteller in the marketing mix - but with transparency - and is just becoming bullhorn with no thoughts in social media.

But this is also not surprising. With the flattening of social media - the barrier to entry is pretty much non-existent - we see many practitioners come from a background of anything (real estate, retail, unemployed with no discernible skills), and not really grasp the basics of marketing or public relations. Not fully understand the need for a fully transparent conversation but the view that "engaging" is all it is, no matter what tactics need to be taken. And with that, we get a lack of transparency but hits and mentions coming to the forefront in social media.

The death of transparency is one of the downsides of social media; it happens because no one speaks up anymore about the issues and the need for transparency, and happens because the general public might care, but doesn't have the time to obsess over the issues. But for too many in social media, it's about getting paid and that's it. No thought on transparency or anything else, just the ego.



  1. I'm curious how you define transparency. I've been using a fairly commonly accepted definition of access to people and information in an organization that you need to make an informed decision. If you believe social media is eroding this, can you share some tangible examples? I'm not arguing, Jeremy; just confused.

  2. I know you're not arguing, Shel. :)

    I'm looking at it in a different way - how people and companies interact with each other in social media, and what the agenda is or if there is one.

    Examples are one social media person posting on Twitter in a chat about search and measurement in a discussion with me ... then 4 tweets in, start touting her company. Same person was promoting an article on response rates for large restaurants on FB with a link to the article ... that was her company's research and pitched article. With a bit of transparency there - that it was her company - I would have taken it with a grain of salt.

    I have also heard stories of students and younger PR pros posting questions on Quora to answer it with their client's solution.

    So looking at transparency that way.

  3. I dunno Jeremy.. Sounds to me like you're getting closer and closer to intent to deceive vs transparency. The transparency takes away the intent to deceive, I suppose, though.

  4. Really enjoyed your thoughts on this Jeremy. As a somewhat new PR pro working for a start-up, I find that the lines of transparency are extremely blurred personally because I am so involved with my company and what we do and believe. There are connections I've made that not only benefit me personally, but also benefit my company. So do I always make it clear what I am speaking on behalf of? Absolutely try to. Do I also connect on a personal level with them if I can? Absolutely. As far as sharing content, I agree that it is easy to add a #me or some kind of transparency disclosure to your posts, but I also feel that if your bio on all of your SM channels clearly states who you work for and what you represent, every single tweet or post you publish doesn't necessarily have to disclose your intent. Those checking out your content (should) have every means possible to see where you're coming from and make their judgements from there. I know in Twitter chats I frequently check out profiles to understand where people are coming from and how much credibility I can take from their statements.

  5. @Courtney It IS a hard line to straddle, and while I agree that some bios on Twitter are better than others, some people are just blatantly promoting things without being transparent.

    But at the same time, Twitter is limited to 140 characters so it gets a wee pass. Blogs and Facebook? Not at all - and I see it too often there.

  6. I think it depends on how you position yourself on Twitter and FB-- if you post under your company name, it can be assumed that you're promoting your own clients or products, to some extent. Especially if it's a PR firm. On the other hand, It's annoying self-promotional when people link to their own posts or websites when commenting on a blog.

  7. You are right, transparency has vanished and with it accountability and truthfulness.

    Its a Wild Wild West out there, bullying is often the mode of persuasion, the biggest bully wins.

    Those who signed onto this brave new world with the clear hope of being able to push their agendas that much easier, are either swimming in the muck, or sinking like so many newspapers are.

    What is most unreal about the entire situation, is that alarm bells have not been set off in the halls of journalism, they are STILL kowtowing to a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of free speech. Crazy.

  8. There's been some interesting coverage recently in the UK's Guardian newspapers and website by journalist Jon Ronson about the practice of 'astroturfing'. Pertinent to this excellent post on transparency.

  9. People nowadays live rushed and busy lives, full of to-do lists and reminders. They seldom have time to stop and think, much less evaluate whether blogs are genuine and authentic and truly popular or whether the authors try desperately to achieve popularity. Therefore processing transparency becomes secondary while busy readers, with colossal amounts of information available, try to read and absorb as much as they can, as quickly as possible.

    Tulane University