Transparency Is All the Rage, but Authenticity Matters More

Not Every Organization Needs to Share Everything

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Social-media transparency is terrifying. The idea that your organization should always talk openly with consumers about every subject seems like it would be a noble and beneficial practice. But transparency is fraught with questions of legality, risk and brand identity for many companies.

So I think it's time we all have a heavy dose of reality: Not every organization needs to be, nor should be, completely transparent.

In fact, I'll go one step further. I can name quite a few types of organizations where transparency can actually hurt your reputation online.

Take a law firm. Complete transparency is the last thing you want. A legal firm's brand needs to be based on privacy and confidence. Transparency regarding how you handle cases, even if not exposing sensitive client details, could be seen as a breach of trust. Then there are the U.S. pharmaceutical and health-care industries, which have to balance federal regulations about labeled usages and patient privacy. Complete transparency for these types of organizations could spell disaster in the form of legal action or fines.

The question of how transparent your organization should be cannot be determined by a blanket best-practices doctrine. Any participation in social media needs to be questioned carefully in light of who you are; it shouldn't be based on what "experts" say you should do.

While I would recommend a company listen carefully to social chatter about its brand, frequent and candid participation in that conversation does not always work toward your brand objectives.

What I'm saying is there's an important distinction to be made between transparency and something much more valuable: authenticity.

We can't assume that complete candor is the only way to do business in a social world, because it doesn't always reflect the true identity of an organization. Sometimes the brand demands mystique. Sometimes it requires the voice to be stoic and silent. Not to mention the times when complete candor highlights operational failings.

Authenticity doesn't demand that we always talk openly with the customer. What it demands is that we remain true to who we are as a company.

Being authentic is an honest assessment of what your brand stands for and a clear understanding of how your brand would handle every situation. When looked at in this light, the question moves from, "Should we be more open?" to "Do customers like what we represent?" If the answer to the latter is no, then the problem is not social media, but branding.

When you think about it, the demand for transparency from companies often has more to do with broken trust than with an honest desire to know the inner workings of your organization.

After all, if there hadn't been a banking collapse, I wouldn't care less how much the CEO of a financial institution makes each year. But because my bank has lied to me, I'm like a jealous husband who wants to rifle through my philandering wife's text messages.

Somewhere along the line we drank our own Kool-Aid and started to believe consumers or clients care more than they do.

Sure, there is always that one guy with a blog who's listening carefully because we send him free stuff. But the average consumer doesn't want to know how we make the toothpaste. She just wants to know that her teeth will be clean. Or if she is concerned, it's usually because she's on a mission to find some organic toothpaste that we don't provide.

So the answer to how transparent we should be and whether Diane-the-product-manager should be blogging really comes down to, "Is this effort projecting who we really are and is it reasonably sustainable?"

Often, when considering things in this vein, we find it more effective to generate PR across many media than to concentrate so heavily on what we say via the social platforms.

True social success is based on how much the entirety of your customer experience inspires people to recommend your company and buy your products.

Being authentic doesn't mean you have to post every day and rack up 100,000 likes. It just requires you to deliver a consistent, compelling identity at every touchpoint that will get consumers talking.

And as with most things "social," remember that brand experiences start offline as well as online. So concentrate on making every customer experience sharable rather than focusing all your efforts on Facebook, Twitter and your blog.

Now go tweet this and prove me right.

Bob Knorpp hosts "The BeanCast" and is president of the Cool Beans Group.
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