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June 25, 2007 10:00 by

transparency, audits

In the past four years, you’ve been lectured with ever-increasing severity on the importance of opening up. You’ve seen blogs and wikis become metaphors du jour for the way big corporations should loosen that figurative starched collar. Those chill homies at Procter & Gamble have even told you to “let go” of your brand. And the gospel of consumer control’s been fed to you like corn mash to a foie-gras goose.

The post-Enron, Web 2.0 era has birthed a business world obsessed with yammering about inverting the traditional relationship between corporations and important outsiders such as consumers and investors, giving them more information, access and influence in exchange for their trust and, ideally, cash. The central - even hackneyed - metaphor is transparency or, as a recent Wired cover package puts it, “radical transparency.” The imperative: “Get naked.”

But what if when the proverbial kimono is opened, all we find is another kimono? Or, worse yet, a gray suit?

More and more, we’re finding out. Transparency is, to be sure, a very real thing to companies as varied as Sun Microsystems and Lego, which in different ways have seen the benefits of open-sourcing everything from communications to product development. But corporate nudity has also become one of the sexiest PR poses, especially alluring to challenged companies seeking to overcome perceptions of stodginess and authoritarianism.

Giants such as Ford, Microsoft and Wal-Mart, which for a long time rampaged across the landscape, devouring market share and using scale like a club, didn’t have occasion to worry much what other people thought. More recently, the slings of smaller competitors and business-model disruptions have forced the giants to show a softer, more vulnerable side, a part of them that wants to, you know, just talk, maybe even cuddle a bit.

Or at least that’s what they say. The reality turns out to be a bit more complicated.

Gift of the gaffe

Witness famously top-down Microsoft’s attempt to show off its transparency as part of that Wired magazine package. It was an in-depth story on Channel 9, Microsoft’s popular employee-blogging program, and how it represents the company’s attempt to change how it relates to the world beyond Redmond. It would have been an image-keeper’s delight, except the story’s impact was blunted by a PR faux pas that grabbed the blogosphere’s imagination a lot harder than the original piece.

That screw-up, in an irony of ironies, involved a PR agency executive accidentally forwarding a briefing on the Wired reporter who wrote the story, Fred Vogelstein, to Vogelstein himself. The file, which the magazine posted on its Web site, is a blow-by-blow narrative of how the story came together, including one agency executive’s “next step”: “We’re pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing.”

Not exactly what you’d call letting go.

Wal-Mart suffered a similar embarrassment with its attempt to open its PR “war room” to a writer from The New Yorker. The resulting piece was a chronicle of the Wal-Mart PR staff’s barely disguised disdain for the author’s existence. Even worse have been high-profile missteps such as Sony’s and Wal-Mart’s attempts to use fake blogs to create the sheen of openness, blatant manipulations of the very tools of transparency.

“The trend line is definitely toward transparency,” says Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media. “Some companies will do it earnestly, others will fake it.”

There are a few ways to read these foul-ups. One is that they represent the very real tension in today’s business environment between new and old. Here’s how Wired Editor in chief Chris Anderson interpreted the Microsoft imbroglio on his blog: It “so aptly illustrates the parallel open versus closed cultures that now exist at Microsoft, as in any big company trying to evolve a command-and-control messaging process to an out-of-control age.”

Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick, says: “Despite all the progress companies are making toward transparency, we are still at the beginning of this new communications wave. … Until companies fully accept they are living in glass houses, they will continue to retreat each time a stone is thrown their way.”

But you could alternately conclude that what’s playing out is the idea of transparency running up against a practical wall. That wall is the need for business to operate, in no small degree, in secrecy. Besides the fact that attempts at transparency often seem ham-handed, there are many companies that thrive despite being as locked-down as ever.

Two sterling brands, Google and Apple, don’t pride themselves on anything approaching two-way dialogue with consumers or journalists and both are, by and large, tight-lipped companies that communicate to outside parties on their own terms. A couple of years ago, Apple even sued one of the many rumor sites dedicated to the company.

Guess where those two opaque firms came in on Wired’s annual list of the 40 most innovative tech companies? First and second place, respectively.

This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Communicate.

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