The Trouble with Transparency.

18 responses.

The Trouble with Transparency

Last Friday’s edition of The New York Times included two stories on the trouble with transparency that few readers probably connected even though the problem affects all of us.

One article was about how Brian Williams “misremembered” his flight on a United States military helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire in 2003 under the headline, “With Apology, Williams Digs Himself Deeper.”
(This story was the subject of my blog post last week.)

The other, titled “Pascal Lands in Sony’s Outbox,” was further down the page and chronicled Sony Pictures Entertainment studio chief Amy Pascal’s trouble with transparency after “she made denigrating remarks about President Obama’s presumed preference for black-themed movies.”

So what do articles about a disgraced TV news anchor and the resigning top executive at Sony Pictures have in common? And why do you care?

Besides both people having top jobs in the media business, and both taking “indefinite leaves of absence” from those jobs, and both being in trouble for saying offensive things, there was one salient point that was most likely overlooked – both offenders were outed and pilloried by the Internet.

In the Williams’ article, CNN’s New Day host Chris Cuomo said, “the Internet would ‘eat him (Williams) alive.’” In Pascal’s case, hackers revealed her private emails in which her comments on President Obama’s movie preferences “became fodder for gossip sites, trade publications and mainstream news organizations.”

Not that anyone reading this blog needs to worry about either Williams’ or Pascal’s futures. The NBC host had a five-year, $10 million contract with the network and Sony’s executive exit included a four-year guaranteed payout of $30 to $40 million, a percentage of the profits on films she produced, and millions of dollars for annual office costs. Neither Williams nor Pascal will have to worry about where their next Fifth Avenue pied-à-terre is coming from and neither should you.

But what is worth worrying about is the trouble with transparency. That is, how easily both Williams’ and Pascal’s respective misdeeds were reported and repeated across the net.

Facts and occurrences that would have taken forever to catch fire years ago now become common knowledge overnight. And whether it’s Governor Chris Christie seen rooting against his home team in a private sky box or Mitt Romney getting caught on video making snide comments about “the other 47%” to a private audience or Pascal sending offensive emails in what she thought was a private conversation, the key protective word of the pre-Internet days, “private,” is now both passé and irrelevant.

Whether or not Williams, Pascal, or any other celebrities’ comments would be found guilty in a court of law no longer matters. Today they are instantly condemned in the court of public opinion. And today’s companies, terrified by the effect of such comments on their stock price and shareholder value, need to be quick to make defensive moves to protect their business. So do you.

Whether it’s a student posting a picture from a drunken frat party that later shows up in a job search or an errant tweet or email sent to “everyone” that was only intended for a specific recipient, the effect of today’s democratized communications is so fast – and so universal – that our code of behavior has not yet caught up with the consequences. And so stories such as the ones on the front page of The New York Times will only become more frequent, more devastating, and more far-reaching.

I’m not suggesting that these folks and many others don’t deserve to be outed for their mistruths and misdeeds—although I should add that most of us have said inappropriate things when we didn’t think anyone was listening. I sincerely do hope that such transparency will ultimately improve the tone and nature of public discourse and behavior. But in the meantime, every CEO, CMO, marketing professional, parent, and person on the ‘net needs to vigilantly guard their professional and personal reputation.

Remember that the walls may not have ears (at least not yet), but that every person with a smart phone has a recorder, a video camera, and a simple way to put your behavior online – and on trial – in a world where you are not presumed innocent until proven guilty.

  18 Responses

  1. on February 18, 2015

    Some comments:

    #1 – Brian Williams is toast. He brought it upon himself. Much like high school kids bragging about their latest adventure. Ultimately, who cares, he was an overpaid talking head. No harm.

    #2 Pascal was a real problem. She created a problem for shareholders, but she also created a ton of value for them and her money is probably really well earned. At that level no one gets a cent for free.

    #3 – What worries me is not “transparency” but the many many many passes that other tons of people get, especially at Fox News. Someone says that some parts of London are sharia law, the British Prime Minister calls the guy an idiot… and nothing happens.

    People repeat the same idiocy about vaccinations. Nothing happens to those spreading false information.

    And a long etc.

    I am more worried about the inability of many people to think critically about what they hear, read, even see.

    Borowitz can write the most outrageous columns in the world… trust me, there will be 100,000 comments in Facebook of which 70,000 take it for true.

  2. on February 18, 2015

    An old school way to define integrity is doing the right thing when nobody is looking.

    Then, when they are looking, your habits carry you through. Facebook or hacked emails end up less of an issue when you are discussing the truth.

    Or, as it often the case, your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying!

    Brian Williams put himself first and not the story, the truth, or the real men and women fighting a war. Put your customers, the task at hand first and the job first and you will have less to worry about.

    Sony’s hacks seem to just confirm that many Hollywood actors are difficult people to work with, and therefore people talk behind their backs. What was so surprising about the truth? Really bad security practices were shown and you can get fired for that.

  3. on February 18, 2015

    Bruce:

    I love what you do, but when you write things like “the key protective word of the pre-Internet days, ‘private,’ is now both passé and irrelevant,” I’m forced to laugh. That’s so not true–and the fact that you don’t realize HOW not-true it is should give you pause.

    I’m a case study in somebody who appears to dissolved the public/private distinction. Back in 2007, I began uploading blues harmonica instructional videos to YouTube. They were filmed in my home, with messy bedrooms and studies and livingrooms as a backdrop; they were filmed in the front seat of my car. I said in the first video that I was going to “give it all away,” and I then proceeded to share as many of the “secrets” of blues harmonica as I could. I’ve met several hundred people, during the past eight years–when I go out on the road, this is–who say “I feel as though I know you” and “I’ve spent hundreds of hours with you in the privacy of my own home.”

    I’ve got a Facebook page. I’m really easy to find. My home address is at the bottom of every newsletter I send out to my mailing list of 7,500.

    By the same token, although I’ve now uploaded almost 500 videos, I’ve never put my wife in one. She happens to be a sweet, beautiful, and grounded African American woman, the love of my life. She’s happy to have me making all those videos. She’s just not interested in being in them. And I’m not inclined to force the point. For the most part, too, we’ve kept our son (now 8 years old) out of the videos, too.

    I’ve got a private life. I cherish it. I don’t post videos or photos of my wife, or of “us,” to Facebook. I have a public life and a private life, and I love them both. I don’t own a smart phone. I own a dumb little old cell phone. Why don’t I upgrade? Because I value that last little set of private moments, walking meditations, that take place when I walk from my car to the office. That’s my creative time. That’s where freedom is for me.

    I’m as media-savvy and connected as the next guy. I watch CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News nightly, switching between channels. But I’ve got a private life, too. Some of us who share a whole lot with the public don’t share everything with the public. We keep ’em guessing. That’s a good thing.

  4. on February 18, 2015

    @Bruce, thanks for another engaging post! This also gets to the heart of experiential social media as I practice it. In my experience, there is little to fear as @jimbleck points out when you are congruent. As this post points out, transparency without congruence is quicksand. So, even though brands and people cannot control transparency, they can control congruency. Williams would be damaged but survive if he admitted to lying to the public because he wanted to pump up his “military standing.” Truth is often disarming. Spin is so over. This can be difficult for clients, but there are no “half truths” only the whole truth… So we usually create a very explicit code and vision of who the brand really is as a part of governance. We all make mistakes and have to be prepared to stand up to them. Then we’ll be forgiven in any situation that matters.

  5. on February 18, 2015

    I appreciate your point of view, Adam, and I really appreciate the time you take to comment on my blog and your kind words. But I think you’re kidding yourself when you say that you’ve kept your public and private lives separate.
    Although we’ve never met, I’ve read your books, bought your CDs, watched some of your videos, and even communicated with you on your Modern Blues Harmonica site. I know about your relationship with Sterling McGee and the friend you lent a bunch of almost flat harps to, I know your opinion of Zola Neale Hurston’s writings, I know what amps you like, about your move to Mississippi, about your teaching, and now a bit about your wife and your son. I even sent you my band’s CD (The Southbound Suspects) as a thank you for all the wonderful music and technique you’ve shared with me and you sent back a lovely note.
    Don’t worry, I’m not a stalker, just a fan. I haven’t pursued you anymore than you’ve pursued me, and yet we’ve established an online relationship that I appreciate, albeit a casual and perhaps tenuous one. If we were to meet by accident, I would certainly know you and perhaps after an introduction you might know who I was, too.
    All of that suggests to me that technology has, in fact, exposed us to one another and inalterably changed the definition of “privacy.” And while you are free to believe your lonely writer’s garret is private and remote, the facts disagree.

  6. Keith Wasserstrom
    on February 18, 2015

    There is and should be a distinction between what someone says publicly, even at a private gathering, and what one says privately with every protection the right of privacy affords. I have less sympathy for the former and serious concern about the latter. Private hacking of emails and photos, and passwords, etc., should be illegal (as it is) and should be shunned and ignored (which won’t happen until the dissemination of private information is also vigorously prosecuted).

  7. on February 18, 2015

    You said it more eloquently than I, Chris. “Spin is so over.”
    Brilliant!

  8. on February 18, 2015

    Agreed, Keith. Unfortunately, the court of public opinion doesn’t care what is legal or correct or even what you think. And it is newly armed with the power of the immediate and universal reach of the Internet.
    We can disagree all we like but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand the capability of the new media and act accordingly. As Jim Bleck said, “…do the right thing when nobody is looking.”

  9. Hal Brooks
    on February 18, 2015

    Bruce, did you see Jon Stewart’s take on the Brian Williams story? I was wondering how he (and his producers and team of writers) would handle it given that Stewart and Williams are long-time good friends. This speaks to comment #3 by Mr. Salup. In hindsight I believe it has been the major players of the mainstream media who have excoriated Brian Williams with the most vitriol, meanwhile… well, watch the piece and decide for yourself:

    http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/j3ware/guardians-of-the-veracity

    I agree with your assessment of modern “privacy” in the digital age. I am amused whenever people on Facebook bemoan their lack of privacy; seems if you are a truly private person you wouldn’t be on Facebook in the first place, yes?

    Another great article! Thank you.

  10. MariTere
    on February 18, 2015

    I think the main problem with these two entire issues and others cited, are those matters that were outsted through the hacking and/or violation of ones privacy.

    We are living in a time were there is virtually no privacy, even within a close circle of friends. We cannot accept that information obtained illegally or in violation of our right to privacy be accepted as public information! No matter how heinous or juicy the information, we cannot continue to allow gossip mongering rag magazines, paparazzi, hackers, etc., violate our privacy. It is because of these entities that has poluted the journalism profession. All under the guise of “the public wants to know” which is a presumption. No, we don’t need to know and don’t want to know.

  11. Jeremy Brooks
    on February 19, 2015

    Hi Bruce,

    This is a fantastic article with interesting responses. Your position on public reputation awareness for CEO’s, CMO’s etc., is spot on. I applaud the ‘tell it as it is’ because we are not presumed innocent until proven guilty – approach.
    Keep on…

  12. on February 21, 2015

    As an attorney, I’ve observed a dramatic rise in the number of clients who come to me feeling “wronged” by the proliferation and exploitation of what they considered to by private/confidential communications in closed door, intimate settings.

    The fact is that unless it’s inaccurate and intentional, it’s not actionable. And, if the person is high-profile, the misrepresentation generally has to also be malicious, as well.

    The bottom line is what Bruce and most of you observed. In today’s world, everything you do and say is fair game to a world of amateur broadcasters hungry for attention at your expense…. fair or not.

  13. on February 21, 2015

    Hi Bruce-

    I help companies take their businesses to the next level and talk about the “Age of Transparency” with my clients all of the time. Like it or not, transparency is virtually (pun intended) ubiquitous and it’s not just our “physical” access to the information but our ability to swiftly dig to learn more, vet our initial thoughts, ask questions, etc. I suspect most of your readers Google some statement or comment that they hear to decide for themselves if it is true or to better understand what is really happening – to develop a more nuanced understanding (the optimist in me is hoping the Age of Nuance follows the Age of Transparency).

    As I share with my clients and prospects, every one of our current or prospective stakeholders (e.g., employees, customers, vendors, etc.), has access to a lot of information on us (e.g., whether we live up to our value proposition, whether we have a great place to work, whether respect our communities, etc.)- most of which is not curated. And to state the obvious, all of the information impacts our “brand” whether we like it or not.

  14. on February 21, 2015

    Thank you for adding a professional point of view to my anecdotal observation. I appreciate the gravitas you bring to the proceeding, Greg.

  15. on February 21, 2015

    Hi Mark –

    Welcome to the discussion. Your last line, “all of the information impacts our ‘brand’ whether we like it or not” is the key to the conversation. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair, it doesn’t matter if it’s right, all that matters is that it is and that it affects each and every one of us.

  16. Seth B
    on February 21, 2015

    Considering that Pascal’s golden parachute wasn’t activated for month or two after all the problems… the hack, the revelation of her emails and the Interview debacle, it’s hard to know which one of those was most responsible for her departure. But I’m pretty sure she would still have her job if only the hack had occurred. Which is interesting, because it was the hack that really showed the poorest executive judgement. The emails and the movie drama were results of the hack, but the emails and the the movie were much more interesting for the general public so those were the nails in her coffin.

    It’s true that Pascal won’t be suffering here. She’s lost the prestige that comes with being a studio head, but also the headaches. My guess is she’ll be as happy or more so being a very wealthy mega-producer.

    Williams is another story. Yes, he’ll be fine financially, but he’ll never have another job like that of a network anchor, and he really seemed to luxuriate in all that entailed. For a guy with as much pride and ego as he had (as evidenced by the deeds that landed him here) going from trusted voice to punchline must be tough.

    Even a more extreme case is Bill Cosby. He’s wealthier than Williams and Pascal put together, and the prestige he held in the world pre-scandal was greater as well. Interestingly, there is little that is known now about Cosby that wasn’t known before. The media and the public heard about the accusations years ago, but as you point out, that was before the internet acquired the ability to amplify it all. And even though Cosby will likely never spend a day in court, he’s already been tried, convicted and sentenced to life without parole. That he’ll always have his wealth means little. He’s lost the things that seemed so important to him. His stature. His platform. He’s the 21st century version of a man carrying the mark of Cain.

    And on the other end of the spectrum, we have the people profiled in this interesting piece by Jon Ronson, non-celebs who found their lives ruined by one bad choice that entered the internet amplification machinery.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0

    I wonder if at some point, enough people will have been shamed to where the general populace remembers that we’re all human and we all mess up so perhaps the punishment should be more fitting to the crime.

  17. on February 21, 2015

    Great blog, Bruce! Always enjoy your opinions and observations. I agree that Chris wrote a great follow up and extension… Congruency is now everything, as well it should be. The comment I find incredulous is Marcelo’s point about “the many many many passes that other tons of people get, especially at Fox News.” Really? Just stop to think for a moment… As despised as Fox News is by everyone on the left, as microscopically analyzed as they are by Media Matters, as often as they are quoted, re-quoted and clips run by MSNBC in an effort to indict their stories, how can you possibly think the collective internet and news world “gives them a pass?” That’s inane. What happens (on both sides) is the validity of stories and contentions is challenged by the other side. Then, as Bruce pointed out and I paraphrase, the engine of the internet news outlets, bloggers, truth detectors and social media takes over and the story is vetted. Those stories with legs stand. Those without don’t. Maybe you should consider that what you call “getting a pass” is actually proof of some level of valid sourcing of the story, in which case it is your arrogance, your own granting of a pass to points about vaccinations and other things YOU consider beyond question that stands in the way of your seeing it, or at least considering a different opinion.

  18. John Glade
    on February 23, 2015

    I appreciate Bruce’s pragmatic approach. His focus is not on what should be, but what actually is.

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