Transparency Schmansparency: It's Not the Business of PR

Marketers Pay Us to Tell Stories, Not Bare All

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These days you can't read an article or a blog post about the PR business without it containing some variation of the word "transparency." And it seems to be de rigueur for PR agency websites to claim transparency as a company principle.

Eric Webber Eric Webber
The basic idea floated by transparentists (I made up that word) is that the PR industry has to adopt a position of full and total disclosure, driven by the innate openness and accessibility to information available on the Internet. In other words, it's too easy now for journalists, pro and amateur alike, to figure out when companies and their PR people lie, so we'd better tell the truth.

I'm all for shedding some old stereotypes and shaking bad habits. There's a definite need for companies, and the people who flack them, to be honest and to be held accountable when they're not. That's nothing new, but I do agree that the need has grown more acute.

But it seems to me that all this talk of being "totally transparent" is overrated and takes things entirely too far. What's worse, it's just not honest.

PR practitioners shouldn't be expected to be totally transparent. It's not what our clients pay us for. We're storytellers, and we are paid to tell a story that is in the best interests of our clients.

In telling those stories, we've got a couple of obligations. We have to believe in the story and we have to be upfront in disclosing that we are representing a client when we tell it. To say that we need to do it without lying should, well, go without saying. But we are not obligated to be totally "see-thru."

In place of "transparent," I'm championing a new buzzword. PR firms and their clients should strive to be translucent. When I think of something translucent, I think of a warm, flattering light that lets you see almost, but not quite everything. And if someone has a real need to take a peek around the screen, then, when you're prepared, let them look.

On the other side of this, there's a great hue and cry from the fourth estate (more disclosure: I don't know why that is a synonym for the press, but I use it anyway) for transparency.

Their demand for openness is, of course, totally disingenuous. No reporter digs into a story without some preconceived notions and at least a little bias. Ask a reporter to disclose everything he knows when he's working on a story about your client, and the reaction would be something akin to asking him to shave his head with a cheese grater.

Maybe you've read about the recent Wired magazine situation that has created quite a stir over this very issue.

Wired magazine writer Fred Vogelstein was working on a piece about, of all things, transparency at Microsoft. During the course of his reporting, Vogelstein was inadvertently e-mailed a detailed PR briefing compiled by Microsoft's PR firm, Waggener Edstrom. It outlined the efforts Microsoft made to land the story, their strategy for getting key messages across and even some observations on Vogelstein -- his reporting style and some personality traits.

In the ensuing blogosphere brouhaha, Vogelstein purports to be shocked -- shocked! -- that such a document exists. But of course it does. And Vogelstein (and any other decent reporter) knows that PR firms spend a good deal of time preparing their clients in this way.

What would be truly shocking would be for the PR firm not to have prepared such a document. Whether they admit it or not, a reporter's job would usually be much more difficult if this sort of preparation weren't done.

And is this any different than the homework Vogelstein surely does for a story like this? Wouldn't he have reams of notes and background information for every story he does? And don't tell me there aren't a few personal observations scribbled in the margins.

Wired's website posted the entire document "in the spirit of transparency." Well if they really wanted to be transparent, why didn't they post Vogelstein's notes too?

But I don't want to be a total naysayer, so in that same spirit of transparency, you should know that as I type this I'm watching the Daily Show (I know it's not real news) sitting on my couch (brown chenille) wearing a t-shirt (from Shiner Beer. Further disclosure -- Shiner's my client) and a pair of boxer shorts (J. Crew). See? I told you it was overrated.
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