PR pundits (like me, I suppose) like to try and convince people that there are certain rules that have to be followed to be successful. One of those that I know I have tried hard to push is the importance of transparency. Let me quote myself and plenty of others about this: There are very few secrets in this internet world–look at Prince Harry in Afghanistan. Given this, if you have bad news to tell, tell it yourself rather than letting someone else tell it for you, ending up making you look like you are hiding. Hiding or covering up comes close to being the unforgivable sin of the social network world as well as mainstream media–particularly if you are covering up something that is harmful to people.
So those are kind of the rules or conventional wisdom of transparency. Burson Marsteller and Facebook are both facing pretty serious consequences for their recent issue regarding efforts to plant stories about Google’s supposed privacy problems. The real problem for both of them was trying to do things under a cloak of darkness–for obvious reasons. I doubt that those who have lost trust in them fault them for trying to manipulate negative media coverage against a competitor. Nothing new here. But to be unwilling to divulge the identity of a client behind the effort, that violates the transparency rules. And for Facebook to make accusations through this means rather than in the open light of day violates the transparency rules as well.
So, how can Apple get by for so long being probably the least transparent major company? And does the fact that they recently catapulted to the most valuable brand on the planet give a lie to the relatively recent conventional wisdom of the value of transparency?
The CEO of PRSA, Rosanna M. Fiske, takes on this difficult question in her guest editorial in Ad Age. I wouldn’t agree that Jobs’ communication style is a faux pas–I think it is who he is. And that I think is the main point. There is authenticity behind Apple’s lack of transparency. It is real because Apple has been the embodiment of Steve Jobs with all the insanely greatness about him and all the arrogance, bullying, self-assuredness that he demonstrated.
There are certainly understandable reasons why Apple cannot be as transparent as is expected of so many others. The competitive battles they are in require a pretty significant level of stealth to maintain their clear competitive edge in the rapidly changing world of personal computing devices. Look at how fast already the knock-offs show up and how hard competitors work to maintain feature parity and sometimes even make an effort to leapfrog. Secrecy is vitally important in their business and I think that those who appreciate their products and their innovation understand and respect that.
But it does go deeper because I think it is connected to the persona of Mr. Jobs. Him telling a student doing a research paper to stop bothering them is neither surprising nor necessarily damaging. It’s Steve, for goodness sake. And because the company has allowed itself (as if it had a choice) to become so closely tied to Mr. Job’s character, personality and unique capabilities, it is neither surprising nor offensive. It’s not the way other companies behave because they are not run by Steve Jobs, a person who has become an icon for innovators and great creators across all industries.
There are some important lessons here. One is the role of character in organization leadership. This was brought stronger to my attention by Peter Firestein’s outstanding book on crisis communication called “Crisis of Character.”
The other is to see how the personal voice is emerging in corporate and organization communication. Shades of Naisbitt’s Megatrends and “high tech high touch.” As our conversation gets more and more technology-dependent, conversely we need that conversation to be between us and another real life human being. If I want to talk to a vaccuum cleaner manufacturer, I don’t want some anonymous call center nobody to talk to me, I want a real person who has real human qualities and who maybe can do something. Today is the day of CEO as communicator, on a remarkably personal level.
This reality was borne out by research done by the University of Missouri about the human voice in social networking conversations. “There is great value in using a human voice when communicating and developing good relationships with the public,” Hyojung Park, a doctoral candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism, said. “Perceptions of relationships with an organization seem to be significantly more favorable when the organization’s social networking page has a human presence rather than an organizational presence. Levels of trust, commitment, and satisfaction from users all appear to be positively affected by the use of the human voice in social media.”
Apple has had a very human voice as the face and heart and soul of the company. Because we see Jobs as human, it seems easier to accept his warts and deficiencies than if what came out from him and Apple as seen as a corporate message. I do think this is why Apple’s secrecy and Job’s “faux pas” have not hurt the company despite the clear violation of the values of its core market.
Three lessons: 1. Character counts. 2. Put a human face on your organization no matter how large. 3) Authenticity counts more than transparency.