Transparency. This is one of the many words which have been bandied around the MSc class since practically the first lecture. At the outset, I thought I knew what the word meant and I thought I understood the implications of the word. But six months and a lot of Net exposure later, I’m only just starting to get the true meaning of transparency – and its climate changing implications for public relations.
I suspect that, while it is in the lexicon of many corporations – and was certainly part of the mantra of this Labour government when it first came to power – ‘transparency’ is the kind of sparkly, nebulous word which these organisations keep for special occasions. It is dragged out, dusted down and presented when the natives are getting restless about some questionable aspect of that organisation’s function. They wallpaper over the latest transgression and promise us ‘transparency’ in future; the uncomfortable conclusion being that we aren’t getting it now.
Traditionally, ‘opaqueness’ has ruled. Whether they’ve been selling the idea of age-defying cosmetics, selective livestock breeding, community service cuts or war, those-who-would-convince the rest of us have been able to pick and choose what information to share, when to release it and how to manage anyone who questions its validity.
Faced with these messages, our options as individuals have been limited, mostly because we couldn’t access sufficient objective information – that is, information which wasn’t being pushed at us from the communications departments of these same organisations – on which to base our decisions. So inevitably, most of us have wound up accepting messages which we haven’t really believed but haven’t been able to dispute.
Now, almost overnight, it seems, information domination has changed. Hello, the World Wide Web. Goodbye, organisational control. Again, I will confess that at the outset of this course, I thought I understood the communication potential of the Net. Now I know I did not. I am beginning to believe that this communication tool could literally change the world…but only if the global community remains alert to the power of organisations to manipulate it.
For the moment, the community has the upper hand. Finally, individuals can contact like minded groups, track down sympathetic agencies, listen to opinion formers and enlist serious players in whatever is their area of concern. People can talk to one another, exchange information, compare notes and generally run circles round organisations and their gatekeepers. Whether you’re an irate consumer, a frustrated dissenter or a wannabe activist, you now know you’re not alone. And it’s a good feeling.
Just one of thousands of examples of community empowerment websites is trendwatching.com. According to their website, they are ‘an independent and opinionated consumer trends firm, relying on a global network of 8,000 spotters, working hard to deliver inspiration and pangs of anxiety to business professionals in 120+ countries worldwide’.
According to this website, the one billion plus Net users are changing the face of consumer and service feedback. Because their reviews are immediate, they have global reach and they have the potential to deify or destroy brands and organisations alike. All of which means they possess sufficient leverage to demand transparency from the organisations concerned.
Or as trendwatching.com puts it: ‘The non-competitive and the downright incompetent have very few stones left to hide under: never before have consumers’ purchase decisions been so strongly influenced by all kinds of transparency. In fact, TRANSPARENCY TYRANNY now rules’.
Obviously, I’m not going to say you heard it here first. I admit to being a latecomer to the concept. But the fact that you’re hearing it at all – on my blog – means that the mainstream, the silent majority (of which I have been one), are finally waking up to the fact that they do have a voice and they can make it heard.
Of course, I’ve been typing away here with my member-of-the-community hat on. I am however, hoping to move into the world of PR any time now. So what lesson will I take from this realisation, regarding my future working practices? Do I really have to spell that out?