Tag Archives: transparency

Transparency, privacy, national security–let the great debate ensue

We knew it would come to this. Those cheerleaders for openness in all things, transparency, full disclosure (including me) sooner or later would run into the problems associated with it. Today our government is being wrenched with the question of privacy of citizen information. The president talks about striking a balance between national security and right to privacy. But who is to decide what balance should be struck? And how can broadbased surveillance be effective if everyone knows the formula for choosing whose activity will be monitored and whose not?

In the news business, similar questions are being raised. This is beyond the tracking of phone calls to try to stop security leaks (and damaging political leaks). Connecticut just passed a law that makes it illegal to make public previously available photos, images, audio reports relating to any homicide. News media will no longer be able to show much about homicides in Connecticut:

The bill as approved exempts photographs, film, video, digital or other images depicting a homicide victim from being part of the public record “to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim’s surviving family members.”

One can understand the sensitivity of Connecticut since this legislation is a direct result of the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But, does this overreach? What the heck will local TV do when they can’t show images and videos involving homicides?

Personally, I avoid local TV because they seem obsessed with crimes, particularly crimes against children. But, since they measure the success of their offerings hour by hour, no doubt this kind of coverage is what their audiences demand. And if the public demands it, how will it work to make it illegal?

The royal family couldn’t keep the fact that Prince Harry was sent to Afghanistan, despite the full cooperation of all the news media. Some blogger in Australia provided the world the information. Will passing a law keep these images from the public? Or did the Connecticut legislature handcuff the local news media, giving one more huge advantage to the anonymous social media hack who gets his/her hand on the graphic image or video?

Is Snowden a hero or traitor? Does disclosing the widespread personal surveillance going on in our government constitute an act of patriotism, or as President Putin seems to suggest by his generous offer of asylum, an act of treachery?

These are difficult questions, but some of the most important facing our world today. The mere reality of a complete connected world with minimum of government censorship means that transparency is a reality, in many cases, a very uncomfortable reality. I for one, opt for freedom. But freedom demands responsibility, and we can be assured that there will always be some yahoo that acts irresponsibly. That’s where laws come in. Unfortunately, like Connecticut’s well-intended law, the irresponsibility of a few leads to a loss of freedom for all. Ah, yes, a balance must be struck.

McDonald’s transparency over burger photo shoot raises questions

Transparency is a good thing, right? But what if that transparency is about how you “doctor” photos to make your products look better than they really are?

The marketing manager of McDonald’s Canada did a noble thing in today’s world of transparency: she answered a social media question with a nice little video giving a straight ahead entirely credible honest answer.

Holy hamburger, batman, that little video answer has taken off into viral world and now the world knows just how McDonald’s ‘cooks’ its photo shoots to make those burgers look so darn good. In fact, at this writing it has nearly 5,5 million views on YouTube making the marketing manager a bit of a media star. Those hits were fed by lots and lots of twitter comments and lots of media stories, such as this one in the Ottawa Citizen.

PR folks in a chat session LinkedIn (where I discovered this little incident) are raising the question: is this just some darn good PR or is this another example of transparency gone horribly wrong?  It certainly appears that there is room for both perspectives, as the video has given those who dislike McDonalds as well as those who think Photoshop is the epitome of all that is wrong with the corporate world plenty of fodder. The website “Red Ice Creations” gives a hint along with a pretty good photo that shows the food styled burger vs. the one bought in the store.

But, to my surprise [and gratitude], I’m finding an awful lot of appreciation for the transparency shown by McDonalds and the presentation of the photo shoot by Bagozzi. Twitter comments surprisingly positive. And mashable’s story has 68 comments at this point with many of them expressing appreciation to McDonald’s for their honesty. Those who are complaining are making it plain that they have other gripes with the company, ala:

If McDonalds wants to be honest they should be honest about the quality and Hygiene of their products, do the same for what kind of meat you guys are using, what part of the world and under what conditions you produce that meat. Same goes for the souces its been used in the burgers and how healty they are. Now that would be being honest.

It seems to me, in looking at this event, the “Internet” (my term for the community of people who dominate Internet conversation) is appearing to have a conversation with itself about transparency. They see it as a huge value and want to encourage it. But they also see in it that such openness carries risks to companies and reputations. So they appear quick to shout down the nay sayers quick to criticize a major brand when they are being surprisingly transparent.

Here are my take aways from this story:

– transparency continues to be an exceptionally important value today, particularly among “the Internet.”

– honesty is also important and transparency and honesty go together, but there is a certain degree of queasiness about doctoring photos. Consider the heat BP took in the middle of the spill when it came to light that someone photoshopped in some images to show a control room full of lit-up screens rather than some being off. Innocent it seemed, but not treated that way at all by the press or the “Internet.”

– all things being equal, a company demonstrating transparency is going to more of a pass

– when you have critics, they will jump on any little old thing to try to belittle you. Their gripe might be something unrelated but anything that looks questionable will garner a response that says, “See how odious these people are?”

– don’t let sinners drive your policies. By that I mean there are three groups: saints (those you have with you no matter what), sinners (those you have against you no matter what) and saveables (those who can be swayed by the sinners or saints.) Play to the saveables. Too many companies have let their most outspoken critics drive the discussion. In the heat of social media criticism make sure you know where your saveables are at and they may not be participating in the online discussion.

So I’m coming down on the side of those who are saying to McDonalds: good job. George Washington didn’t get spanked when he owned up to chopping down the cherry tree. But, if Papa Washington had discovered it and little George had hid the ax, he’d be in a world of hurt. McDonalds should be very glad the Hope Bagozzi did the video and not someone sneaking into the photo shoot to do them damage. The story would be quite different.

Penn State and Herman Cain–why hope is hopeless

I follow the news like others, looking for crises to comment on. I haven’t blogged about Penn State’s problems, just because, well, everyone else was and the lessons seem so obvious. But, perhaps an even more obvious lesson is that these important lessons bear repeating because some just don’t seem to be learning very easily.

The obvious lesson is, if you know something is going to bite you in the rear end, don’t keep your rear pointing in the same direction. Turn around and face the problem head on.

The absolutely amazing thing about Penn State is that this was such an obvious “smoldering” crisis. And it was smoldering in large part because they did nothing about it. Herman Cain was a bit of fresh air in the primary race in part because it was just kind of intriguing to consider the possibility of two smart African-Americans facing off for the presidency. But, did not Mr. Cain and his campaign have any idea that these issues would come up in the race? I have no idea the legitimacy but the mere fact that allegations were raised and settlements paid in the past meant that it was 99.99% certain to become an issue. Democratic machine or no Democratic machine, this is politics today and such secrets are all but impossible to keep.

So, if Penn State knew for a long time about the allegations and the explosive nature of them and did nothing about it, how can intelligent leaders do such a thing? And Cain, did he not think or consider that he may want to be the one to bring the allegations, which he absolutely claims to be false, to the public’s attention? Hope might be a good campaign slogan, but it sucks as a crisis communication strategy.

It’s well documented that the vast majority of crises are “smoldering.” There is time to prepare. More important today, in an age when secrets are all but impossible and are always tainted with coverup, the way of dealing with bad news is to be the first to tell it.

I’m guessing there are an awful lot of future political candidates, members of boards, and senior leaders of large organizations who look at these two events with great discomfort. They know what they need to do, but dread the consequences. So, they continue to hope.

Good luck to you.

How to embarrass the embarasser, or how transparency turns the tables

Say you are a NGO heavily involved in political activity. Someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum wants to discredit you–obviously you are being effective. So they hire a research firm to dig out embarrassing details and the research firm does a massive search for public records, intending clearly to find some tidbit of impropriety between you and your political contacts. Even the slightest misjudgment can make juicy headlines in today’s easily manipulated media environment.

What do you do? How about beating your opponents to the punch, gathering up all the public records and publicly making them public? That’s what LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy) did. This op-ed by the LA Times’ Jim Newton ends up making LAANE and its executive director positively virtuous, while the research firm who requested the records ends of looking pretty sleazy.

Certainly there are those who might say that its all partisan politics–LAANE is pro-union, pro-environment, pro-immigrant rights, etc., and the research firm is known for working for conservatives. For those who would see it this way, the positive report by LA Times only proves their orientation. But, to simplify it this way would miss the point: transparency.

Fact is, the reporter did uncover some little tidbits. It even found that it under-reported the time and money it spent on lobbying on a tax return. I can see the headlines now. It’s the kind of juicy little thing that works so well in today’s. But, since the organization self-reported through this process (forced though they may have been by the public record’s request) the news communicated something entirely different–a minor mistake which was corrected in the next year’s filing.

The lessons here are obvious. Transparency builds trust. If you have something bad to reveal its a heck of a lot better coming from you. And if you are going to try to do a smear job on someone, you better hope that they have something big to hide and that they won’t just open their kimono. Might make you, the intended smearer, look like the bad guy.

Trolling, toxic talk and the challenges of transparency

Thanks to Dave Statter of statter911 who alerted me to this outstanding op-ed piece in NYT by Facebooks’ design manager Julie Zhuo about the challenges the tech community faces regarding trolls. Trolls are those mean, nasty horrible creatures that lurk around seeing who they can attack with their slobbering, venomous mouths. In this case, they don’t lurk under bridges and pathways, but they lurk around blogs, news sites and websites, contaminating almost every conversation with their toxic expressions. Yes, you’re right, I don’t like them very much and have written about them a fair amount here under the topic of toxic talk. I think they are a significant contributor to the decline of public trust and the disagreeable atmosphere surrounding much of our public discourse.

As Julie points out, a primary cause for this is anonymity. People will do all kinds of things when their identity is unknown and unknowable that they wouldn’t think about doing otherwise. The Greek philosophers certainly understood this. Trolling, like many evil deeds, would be seriously decreased by making it illegal to reveal who you really are.

But, that runs smack into a primary ethos of the internet. The internet crowd really likes this anonymity and I suspect a great majority of them would fight hard to protect it. And I for one do not believe there is or should be a legal or legislative solution to every problem that plagues us. If that is the way, soon our only problems will be legal and legislative ones and sometimes I’m not too sure we aren’t there already. I just think it is quite ironic that the internet ethos of anonymity runs smack dab into that other high value of the internet culture–transparency. How can you demand transparency from anyone and everyone, while hiding behind anonymity? Yet, that seems to be the value system at work.

Speaking of transparency, and speaking as one who has proclaimed its virtues loudly and tried to help organization leaders understand its urgency and demands, we are now seeing some of the dangers and challenges of transparency. I am referring, of course, to wikileaks and the widespread publication of classified war documents and now diplomatic messages. I have little doubt that those subscribing to the internet ethos, as I am referring to it, are largely applauding the release of these documents and looking to nominate Julian Assange, wikileaks founder, for a Nobel prize. Part of me wants to join in the applause but there is also that part of me that says there are some times when secrets are necessary.

The dilemma inherent in this struggle against transparency versus other competing values and interests–including the lives of people and security of the nation–is evidenced in the New York Times explanation of its decision to publish most of the leaked documents. Wikileaks creates a huge dilemma for responsible news organizations like the New York Times. Refuse to publish and they not only lose out on all that web traffic and public interest, but they look like digital content Luddites. Publish it all, and they fall right into the reasonable accusation of not caring about anything other than their ratings or readers. Personally, I think they did a pretty good job of walking this tightrope with this explanation. Still, it makes you wonder a bit when they make a point of pointing out that they did not necessarily agree with the Obama administration’s opinion about publishing all documents and so are making themselves the arbiters of national security questions rather than leaving that to the government. I guess so it has always been, but this seems to be on a whole new level.

What seems clear in all of this is that transparency is not an unmitigated good–as even the most adamant of internet freedom protectors would agree. If they did agree that transparency was the ultimate good then they above all would demand an end to anonymity on the web. So, both individual members of society, like the publisher of the NYT and society as a whole will continue to struggle with finding the right balance between transparency and protection. It will be interesting to see how this will play out in the field of conflicting values. What is certain for crisis communication is that any effort to restrict information without clear and compelling justification will be met with hoots and howls from the media and the social media crowd alike. All the more for the trolls to slobber over.

Washington Post and Dave Weigel teach lesson about emails

Dave Weigel, a blogger for the Washington Post lost his job today. No big story. He was hired as a conservative blogger (increasingly called journalists) because the Post was criticized by conservatives of not understanding their thinking. He was fired because its now quite clear that he didn’t think too much of some of the leading conservatives. A bigger deal, but still not such a big deal. His real attitude toward conservatives was revealed not so much in his official posts, but in private email conversation. Big deal.

Another Post blogger, and the one who set up the private email listserv from which the damaging emails were leaked, Ezra Klein, clearly feels badly for his friend. And in his blog he captures an interesting dilemma about internet communications–the feeling of privacy that belies the complete lack of privacy:

There’s a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it’s dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It’s public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It’s easy to talk as if it’s private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public.

Not long ago the Library of Congress announced it was archiving all Twitter conversations. Perhaps some future sociologist will find gold in the millions of conversations about sandwiches, lattes and bathroom breaks. Twitter, like email, feels private and protected, but it is not. Somehow those little arrangement of bits and bytes can be saved somewhere, shared in unexpected ways and come back to haunt you years later. Career counselors on university campuses have a big job today reminding students that what they put on Facebook may affect their careers in years ahead and in unsuspecting and distressing ways. We can be fully open, transparent and authentic on the Internet, but that may not be a good thing.

Added to this situation, and a critical part of it, is the cultural change in exposure. We hear now of journalists in the days of the Kennedy’s preserving private activities that today would be front page fodder and the subject of tens of thousands of posts and comments. Today, we would consider such a conspiracy of silence to be almost unamerican, a violation of our right to know, and for most a sign of unethical political partisanship on the part of journalists (citizen or professional) who have the info but refuse to share it. This culture of exposure is brilliantly explained in this column today in NYT by David Brooks.

We lost an American hero and perhaps a critical part of our war effort in Afghanistan when the Rolling Stone as a publication and the reporter who wrote the story on General McCrystal fully delivered on our cultural values. The ethos of brutal exposure was taken to new heights, or depths. Clearly the good General didn’t catch what should have been some obvious clues as to what his unthinking staff had gotten him into. But maybe he was too much into the corruption and disease in Afghan culture and politics that he missed the clues to our own corruption and disease.

I hope this sad episode and David Brook’s column help us all to think a little more about the direction we have been taking. This culture of exposure, of fault-finding, of demonizing for the purpose of political gain and attracting audiences is painfully obvious to me and I hope to you each day in the coverage of the Gulf spill. I am saddened by it, frustrated, and angry. We should expect more of our media, our politicians and ourselves.

In the meantime, understanding this culture of exposure, understanding that all discourse online today is permanent and completely shareable, the stories of Weigel and McCrystal should urge us to caution. Perhaps the age of transparency has come and gone. If so, I think I might miss it less than I earlier thought.

Will Google pull out of China? A clash of cultures that may apply to you.

I posted today at emergencymgmt.com about this important issue.

It highlights not just freedom of speech issues, but the whole value and culture clash of transparency vs. secrecy. To that end, it is highly relevant for crisis communicators and their leaders.

Three more examples of social media policies–Kodak, Intel, IBM

Social media policies are a big issue today. They are fraught with danger. One, because the culture of the internet demands transparency and openness to incredible degrees, but the culture also seems to celebrate anger, rudeness, crudeness, vulgarity and general disrespect. I blogged earlier here about Walmart’s Twitter policy. From Mashable, here are three examples of other major organizations with social media policies around transparency, moderation of comments, and the value of social media.

Dominos explains its response to the YouTube video crisis

Tim McIntyre of Dominos Pizza explains in the PRSA Strategist article how Dominos responded to the video posted by a couple of idiotic employees on YouTube. This event helped deliver the message to corporate leaders better than almost anything I can imagine how vulnerable they were to the lack of good sense inevitable in their employee base and how social media and “going viral” represents a new and unprecedented threat to their brand value and reputation.

McIntyre does an admirable job of explaining what happened from an inside perspective. It all sounds good and reasonable but as I was reading I was thinking about my criticism of Dominos at the the time as well as every other crisis communication pundit–they were too slow. McIntyre here clearly isolates the reason what slowed them down. And in the process he highlights one of the most critical elements of crisis management: how do you assess the potential damage and how do you prevent your response from creating more damage?

On Wednesday, we learned that Domino’s as a search word had surpassed Paris Hilton for the first time ever. So that got mainstream media’s attention. We were still communicating to YouTube, communicating to these other Web sites, communicating via Twitter. And even at a million views, we were thinking, “This is fast, but there are 307 million people in America. There are a lot of people who don’t know about it; let’s focus on talking to the audience that’s talking to us.”

So they focused on trying to deal with those who were aware of it while not creating more awareness. Or, as he discusses later, cleaning up the mess in aisle five without closing all the other aisles in the grocery store (an analogy). The problem was that he didn’t really count on the viral nature of social media and how quickly it can spin out of control. Here is his answer to the question of what they could have done better in those first 24 hours:

Two things we didn’t anticipate. The first thing we didn’t anticipate was the pass-along value, or the pass-along nature of this particular video, because there was a lot of “Man, you ought to see this going on.” And the sheer explosion of interest from the traditional media. In fact, the writer for USA Today who contacted me first sent me an e-mail. The body of the e-mail said, “This is the e-mail you did not want. Please call me.” And that’s when I knew that we were going to be accelerated and we needed to take a more aggressive stance about reinforcing the message that we didn’t do this; this was done to us. (NOTE: THE EMPHASIS WAS MINE)

Here’s McIntyre’s very valuable advice about crisis communication today:

If there’s a crisis happening in the social media realm, or if there’s a fire in the social media realm, there’s a segment of the population that wants you to put on a microphone and a webcam and describe what you’re doing as you’re doing it. They want you to describe how you’re putting out the fire. And that’s an interesting phenomenon.

Absolutely right. That segment is big, powerful and very influential–and it now includes much of the media. So strap on your webcam and start talking–nonstop! It’s just not about press releases anymore folks–its about continuous 140 character updates with lots of video and images. It’s not about accuracy (heresy!!!) it is about what is happening right now and what you know right now.

McIntyre’s conclusion (and these may be the most important pieces of crisis advice you will get all year):

That would include responding on our Web site a little bit faster, hitting the Twitter community a little bit faster and talking to senior leadership a little bit faster.

EPA struggling with transparency too–an email faux pas

Here’s a dilemma: one of the cardinal rules of preparing an organization for a crisis is to train the media spokesperson and train those who are not the spokespeople to “refer and defer” as my friend Chuck Wolf explains.

But what would the media do with a “secret copy” of an email that says to an employee “you are not to talk to a reporter but instead refer the reporter to an appropriate spokesperson.” Why that reporter is going to scream: COVER-UP!

That’s what seems to me behind this story from the San Francisco Chronicle about the EPA and an email sent to managers telling them to remind their employees to not talk to investigators. Now, I am suspecting there is a perfectly good rationale for this–staff authorized by management should be the ones to engage at that level. However, that is not how this story presents it and it looks very much like the EPA top management is trying to control the investigation process and hide something.

So, the “secret email” becomes big news. I have no idea what might be under investigation. I don’t really care. As a reader of this story all I take away is that the EPA–a government agency no less–is trying to hide something from the government. E gads–let’s find out what they are hiding!