When Jeffrey Eisenberg gave an inspiring and thought-provoking talk last Thursday at Innotech Austin, he talked about how transparency is no longer a choice for companies. Your information will be out there whether you like it or not due to the number of employees, customers and competitors using social media. Your choice, he said, is authenticity.
I agree with Jeffrey that the debate on transparency is over, but for different reasons and with a different conclusion. In my view transparency is not enough. It comes from a group of executives agreeing that transparency, in this modern world, is a good thing. They then decide what to be transparent about and set a timeline to disclose it. The marketing person (you or me) “crafts messaging.” Transparency is implemented as translucency – selective disclosure. It’s a wall of glass bricks where you can see that someone’s in the shower but can’t see what Monty Python calls “the naughty bits.”
Is transparency good? Sure. A man dying of thirst in the desert won’t turn down a thimbleful of water. But it’s nowhere near enough. Companies that talk about transparency are simply disclosing marginally more information than is required by law. Calling a thimbleful of water a sea change is asinine.
OK, what about Jeffrey’s concept of authenticity? Authenticity is about being who you are. That’s good, right?
Before we got busy with kiddos my wife and I indulged a passion for traveling in rural Mexico. I’m not talking about Cancun or Baja. Every single time we got as far off the beaten track as possible, visiting towns that were only accessible by train or on foot. We slept on rooftops and in homes in towns where there was no hotel because no one visited. I remember a conversation with a family about domestic animals. After we revealed that we had only a cat to our names, our hosts looked at us with pity, the way a social media addict looks at a person without a smartphone. They thought we were beyond dirt poor. So they welcomed us into the three-room house in which they, as people of means (with two pigs, many chickens, a goat and two cows) lived. I’m not mocking these generous people. On the contrary, they were fantastic hosts and taught us a lot. And the food was authentic.
At the grocery store I can buy Old El Paso salsa with the word “authentic” on the label. It does not taste the same. Sorry Jeffrey, but the word authenticity is too easily abused. Just like transparency. The more syllables a word has, the more easily it is twisted – that’s why MBAs and lawyers love their polysyllables. So where does that leave us?
It leaves us in search of a word so direct and real that to abuse it would be unthinkable. I suggest “honesty.” Be honest with your employees, customers, prospects and even competitors. Honesty doesn’t mean disclosing earnings and salaries when the SEC doesn’t require it (although some companies do). Honesty means telling people the facts unless there’s a good reason you can’t tell them. And when you can’t, honesty demands that you don’t waffle. Instead, you say “I can’t tell you that and here’s why.” You can choose to keep information private in an honest way.
Admit to not being transparent and you admit to failing in the implementation of your communications strategy. Admit to being inauthentic and you admit to wearing a tie and sport coat when you’re more comfortable in jeans. Admit to not being honest and you acknowledge a major failing in your character. See the difference? You’ve moved up from the nickel slots of corporate communications to the high stakes poker game of integrity. Are you ready?
This is a huge challenge to marketers when our three favorite words are Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Are you ready to leave that behind? Can you?
After all, marketing has shifted from advertising to conversation. Want to end a conversation? Try not being honest. As soon as the other party figures it out, the conversation ends. Want to end a conversation with your spouse? Try “crafting messaging”, setting a timeline, and selectively disclosing information about something important, like what you’re spending money on. But be careful. You may end more than just a conversation that way.
Transparency is a timid step in the right direction. It’s pointing at the moon, not launching a rocket to go there. Authenticity is better but it’s too easily co-opted, messaged and massaged. Try honesty.
And if the three syllables in honesty give enough wiggle room to “craft messaging” rather than simply saying what is, then we’ll have to settle on one syllable. (I know you’re thinking by now that it’s “rant”, but it’s not.)
Just be true.
Photo by michael.dreves