Friday, September 10, 2010

Translucency and the No Comment Debate in the Era of Transparency (September)

The following are notes provided by GFW PRSA chapter member and past president, Holly Ellman from the September luncheon:
Rob Wakefield, Ph.D. and Susan Walton - Brigham Young University

Two years ago Brad Rawlins was one of the first to get information on transparency into the public relations body of knowledge.
Three Concepts of Transparency
1.      Embrace open and honest communication of both successes and failures
2.      Engage with your publics, facilitate ongoing dialogue
3.      Relinquish the intent to hide things to make your organization look perfect
Sometimes there are limitations to what you can say. When and how should you be transparent?
No Comment
There are traditional reasons for not being transparent:
·         You don’t know the answer
·         You feel a different spokesperson, perhaps with more or specialized knowledge, should respond
·         Response involves a legal issue
·         The activity/event deals with personal or confidential information
Consider Translucency. It’s not a replacement for transparency, but is a necessary supplement, or corollary.
Translucency discerns the outline of an object, but does not completely reveal the object.
When should you be transparent?
  1. Is what you are disclosing the truth? (Not just a collection of facts – appropriate context is important.)
  2. Does it meet cultural norms and expectations? (For example, in the Toyota recalls, the Japanese people were insulted that the Toyota CEO addressed the company’s crisis. In this culture, it is sometimes more important to save face.)
  3. Is it authentic? Does it reflect who you are and who you say you are?
  4. Is it the best ethical and emotional choice? Could reputation be damaged?
  5. If releasing the information available at the time, when you know more information will be available at a later date, would you cause someone to act too early without all the facts?
Photo: dbl90 via Flickr Creative Commons
A complaint is lodged.
An investigation is launched.
Public is informed about investigation.
The complainant is absolved.
Reputation is potentially damaged.

A complaint is lodged.
An investigation is launched.
The complainant is absolved.
Public is informed.
Reputation is maintained.

Toward Translucent Transparency
Does not give permission to hide things.
  1. Most important thing is commitment to open communication with stakeholders to the highest extent possible.
  2.  Maintain open, transparent communication always – in good times and bad – ahead of a crisis as well as in the midst of one.
  3.  Recognize and freely acknowledge that you rarely have all the answers. Say this clearly and frequently, and explain why this is true.
  4. Hold both sides of the debate accountable for transparency. What are the motives on both sides? (i.e., the media)
Question and Answer Period
Translucency is becoming more acceptable to attorneys, who are beginning to realize the importance of the court of public opinion.
In the non-profit world, transparency is hugely important. A lot of the organization’s credibility depends on its past behavior. Carefully think through and explain why you can’t share some financial information, for example. (i.e., problems the Red Cross faced when it was discovered that some of the money donated for Katrina victims went instead to operating funds or to save for future needs)


  1. Hello all. It's Anita Foster, PIO with American Red Cross and Katrina responder for the American National Red Cross. Wow. This comment about Katrina dollars going to operating funds or to save for future needs really caught me by surprise. I truly don't know what this is referring to. Americans donated $2.2 Billion dollars and we distributed $2.2 Billion dollars to Katrina victims. There are always rumors about how we charge disaster victims for services which never happens, or how we "divert" funds, but they're just not true. We deployed 250,000 Red Cross volunteers, operated shelters in almost 50w states, we served more than 1 million meals in one day alone and on and on. The Red Cross helped more than 1 million families, nearly 5% of the population of the United States just during the 2005 hurricane season so we didn't have any money left over to put into an operating fund or save for future needs. It took every penny and then some just to help those who needed our help to survive, literally. Katrina was a true humanitarian crisis in our country. Every penny donated was distributed to the victims of the disaster. And the Red Cross never has, or never will, think of doing otherwise. Here's a link to the 5-year report that will highlight all of the services that were provided to help. Please take a moment to review what the Red Cross actually provided with America's donation. We think you'll be astounded.

    As you know, we love PRSA as many of our highly qualified volunteers come from PRSA. We just wanted to correct the record that our organization at no time did anything other than support people who needed us and it was our honor to do so.

    All the best,
    Anita Foster
    American Red Cross-Dallas Area Chapter

  2. Anita, thanks for correcting perceived inconsistencies on behalf of Red Cross. I didn't attend the luncheon and don't really know the context of the conversation. I appreciate you giving background and accurate information from Red Cross.

    - @vedo