Social media transparency: How realistic is it?

Posted on March 2nd 2009

I embrace social media 100% and as a business owner social media has been proven for me. But, I know that a lot of marketing and PR professionals who are now just sticking their toe in the proverbial social media pool have questions; especially around the meaning and implementation of transparency.

As social media evangelists we talk about social media transparency and the importance of being forthright, authentic and honest. We also discuss that it's about the “who” (people) not the “what” (brand or company), an important part of being transparent when it comes to social media.

That said, recently two incidents have happened that are making me re-think the term transparency.

As a business owner the first one is personal, but I think it's important to share. In early February my father-in-law passed away and I was offline for over a week. A lot of people were contacting me because it wasn't the norm and they were worried. When I jumped back online, I finally left a comment on Jason Fall's blog (Kevin Palmer's guest post) that I had told Kevin weeks before that I would write. Kevin might not have even notice that I hadn't commented, but I wanted to keep my word. In commenting I apologize for the delay “due to a family situation.” And in retrospect, that was probably a mistake. Honestly, I didn't want to be transparent…it was a private family matter, not for public consumption (even though there was a very public obituary). But, in trying to be transparent, I might have ended up seeming non-professional. I should have just said “sorry to be late to the party” the usual comment for tardiness. The thing is, people did know what had happened and offered their condolences online, it wasn't a secret if people were paying attention to my Twitter stream. I have talked about my family before on Twitter, but this was different for me.

The second incident happened just yesterday. During the ghost writing debate, I was publicly annoyed because I felt that Heather and Mike Whaling were not being transparent in their use of social media (Twitter) while debating me (i.e. meaning that they were tweeting as two representatives from two agencies versus a married couple). I found out after the fact from Mike's client, Eric Brown, that Heather and Mike were actually married. When I learned that, I just felt that the situation was disingenuous (not that they are  disingenuous mind you, there's a difference and I don't believe that at all). Mike left a really nice note in which he explained that he didn't think it was necessary to mix personal with professional. I totally get that, but I stated that in this particular situation I thought it was indeed very important to be transparent. But at the end of the day, it's Mike's personal decision to determine the level of transparency that's best for him, his business and his family, right? Not all of us are on the same page for how much transparency is appropriate.

For a brief moment, let's think about these situations from a non-social media perspective. Would they have happened in a traditional, offline environment? I bet they would, but would have been handled differently. We understand business conduct and yet we are still trying to work out how social media best works for business when we all have a voice and the desire to be “real.”

Here's the one way we could potentially look at the spectrum of outbound communications (I am basing these loosely on light transmission definitions since we are talking about transparency):

  • Opaque - where most companies lie in the spectrum. One-way conversations (i.e. normal marketing/PR)
  • Translucent - Forthright, not revealing all, but still two-way conversations. (Ex: a person can be very professional on Twitter, engaging, but still not discussing his/her personal life)
  • Transparency - Crystal clear, real two-way conversations (you know about this person's personal life, business experience, product/service they market/brand, etc.).

From a business perspective is being translucent okay when it comes to social media? Are we using the word transparency correctly? Do we need to know everything? Do we care or not care to know everything? Do you want to feel like you have a transparent relationship with a brand/company? What happens when transparency goes wrong? What works?

Who decides what the appropriate level of transparency is? Who makes the rules? The person, the company or the community in which they interact? Where are the boundaries?

Lots of questions here…


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bethharte

Beth Harte

Beth Harte is a marketing & communications professional with over 16 years of experience that includes a passion for excellence and a pragmatic mind for business and results-oriented outcomes. Beth is looking for her next career opportunity, perhaps it's with your organization? Read more here: http://bit.ly/HireBethHarte Beth Harte is a nationally recognized thought leader and speaker that has led successful integrated traditional and digital marketing efforts for companies of all sizes (start-up to Fortune 500) and global reach including their integrated marketing communications and strategic planning efforts, including product development, marketing campaigns, branding, public relations, digital marketing and social media efforts. As an adjunct professor at Immaculata University and an adjunct faculty member at Rutgers University’s Center for Management Development, Beth teaches courses such as Marketing in a Global Economy; Marketing Principles and Practices, Introduction to Public Relations; Writing for Public Relations; Issues in Public Relations; and Integrating Digital Marketing. Beth has a BS in Marketing from Chestnut Hill College and an MS in International Marketing from St. Joseph’s University. Being a firm believer in “walking the walk to talk the talk,” Beth shares insights on how organizations can be customer-centric here at The Harte of Marketing. You can also find Beth blogging over at the MarketingProfs’ Daily Fix blog. Finally… Beth is also a multiple co-author of Age of Conversation 3.
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Comments

Posted on March 3rd 2009 at 2:10PM
Thank you Berth for a very good post! Too often we have only posts like 'How to use Twitter to the max', and the more theoretic side is left alone.

I believe everyone should determine their transparency level by themselves, there's no one answer. But if someone says that you should try to be totally transparent, is absurd. That's impossible, can be even dangerous and hey, like you said: Who cares to know everything? You can still have a good relationship with a brand.

And about the personal openness: in our normal [real] social life, are we totally transparent with our family and friends? No. So why should we be that in the web then?

Not being totally transparent and lying aren't the same thing. People who want to show the world everything, have some issues they should deal with. That is called exhibitionism, nothing else.

So what's my opinion about this all? Choose the level that fits to the need. If something feels uncomfortable; don't do it.

michgoetz
Posted on March 3rd 2009 at 3:08PM
I think a big turn-off for many with social media is the transparency issue and too-much-information.  It inhibits people not only to join but to even participate.  My opinion: Translucent is best but Transparency can be appropriate in certain situations.  Overall I think Transparency is best in more intimate discussions vs public.

Maybe this is just the New Englander in me! (uh...Is that too transparent?)

jodiontheweb
Posted on March 6th 2009 at 7:11PM
Great post, Beth.  We often talk about transparency here at my job, but after reading the above, I do think we are probably talking more about translucency.  Thanks for differentiating!
bethharte
Posted on March 9th 2009 at 5:33PM
@MarkoTeras, exhibitionism is a good word for it...I've heard others call it narcissism. Either way, it doesn't work for a business. And given that most of us work for a company (well except musicians, artists, etc.) I have a feeling that most businesses won't embrace either.

@MicheleGoetz, that's a great point...it could also depend on regional culture too. Never thought about that, but it makes sense.

@Jodi, a lot of companies have been saying they are more translucent. So I wonder how that's going to change how we use the word transparency in social media.


JoanneZimakas
Posted on June 11th 2009 at 12:16PM

Aeosop's The North Wind and the Sun demonstrates to us that transparency/social media is the Sun and all the wind out there is....just that!!!!!