If there's one word that's tossed around with abandon when it comes to social media, it's "transparency". But like any word that gets overused as a shortcut to describing a concept, I think we need to back up the truck a bit and discuss what we really mean by that. Because this is one of the words that scares companies into thinking they have to bare all in order to use social media. And it prevents them from moving forward.
Inherent or Taught?
In this excellent post on the broken bits of social media strategy, Tom Webster talks about how telling people to "be human" isn't very effective. Directing someone to behave in a manner that's not part of company culture, or in a way that conflicts with their sense of self-preservation, is counter-intuitive and it's backwards. In other words, telling someone to be human and empowering and allowing them to be are often two different things.
Same deal with transparency. When we say we want companies to be transparent, what we want is for them to be honest with us. Paul Gillin put that rather eloquently at the recent Inbound Marketing Summit in Boston, and mentioned (I think rightly) that if a business truly has an honesty issue, that goes far, far beyond social media's ability to fix it.
So is honesty - honesty as woven into the very fabric of a business - something we can teach?
Too Much Information?
Contrary to some widsom, also, is the idea that honesty means giving away the farm. Sharing your trade secrets, disclosing private financial or other sensitive information, giving your customers the unfettered view of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I don't ever think that everything behind the walls of a business should be fair game. Transparency and honesty don't equate with utter vulnerability.
Perhaps what we're really striving for is the demonstration of imperfection and a reasonable level of accessibility. The openness to a discussion instead of instilling gatekeepers and bulldogs at every turn. The willingness of business to show that not only do they not have all the answers all the time, but that their employees can relate to us on a level of individual need vs. an "entity-to-market" mindset.
We're oddly comforted when a representative of a business says "you know, I don't know the answer to that, but I'll find out for you.". The transparency here is acknowledging that not every question comes with a ready-made answer, and that the human on the other end has to find a response rather than dish out one that's been pre-baked for them. Screw ups deserve acknowledgment, apologies, and work toward solutions. Questions deserve answers wherever possible.
Transparency is Not a Tactic
To reference Tom's post again, often this directive to "be transparent" is issued tactically to front-line employees and those responsible for corporate communication. We're asking the gatekeepers to be "transparent". Which, almost immediately, smacks of mistrust, or at the very least a task on a list instead of a way of doing business.
So therein lies the rub. Is a "transparent" business something that can be accomplished at a surface level? Where does the idea of transparency need to be nurtured inside a business for it to be real?
Moreover, is it really transparency or honesty we're asking for, or is it something different? What are we really expecting from companies (please don't tell me to "be human" unless you can define that too), and as a business person, where would you draw the line between honesty and too much information? Is there such a thing as too much?
Think this through with me some more. It's still a little tangled in my head.
Link to original post