Here’s an idea for a drinking game called Transparency: Players have to chug every time someone drops this chestnut in a business or political setting.
In our shell-shocked, post-Madoff era, the thirst for transparency and full-disclosure is warranted. We rightly want to know what’s under the fingernails of those who have power over our lives.
The problem is that transparency has become the insipid new shibboleth for all that is good and noble—a mere bit of corporate and political theater. After all, nobody ever got fired for invoking transparency. Maybe they should.
Transparency begins with its spiritual leader, President Obama, who isn’t particularly transparent, which is apparently OK.
I made a few notes on recent mentions of transparency in my own little world of crisis management, where it is seen as the antidote for whatever malfeasance ails ya’:
• A prospective client requested “greater transparency in your budget.” Upon further inquiry, it became clear that he meant, “I don’t want to pay you.”
• In a meeting, Participant #1 responded to a statement by Participant #2 by saying, “Your point isn’t transparent enough.” As the debate wore on, it became evident that Participant #1 was really saying, “I disagree with you and would like to strangle you with my belt.”
• A reporter told me that he didn’t believe that a drug company had been transparent with its research. I asked him to identify the source who was alleging that a particular product was hazardous. The reporter refused, because, he said his sources were confidential. When I suggested that this was not very transparent, I got a predictable earful about how confidential sources are critical to public welfare.
This last example has the most serious implications, because both the reporter and I have a point: True whistleblowers should have recourse, but anonymous sources wield immense power and cause mortal harm to their targets whether they deserve it or not. Transparency should apply to the product liability activists as well as to those making the products.
Transparency begins with its spiritual leader, President Obama, who isn’t particularly transparent, which is apparently OK. He promised to limit the influence of special interests by setting strict rules about administration officials coming from or going to lobbying positions in the private sector. When questioned about this, Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said there were exceptions for senior officials. When pressed on these exceptions, Gibbs said the administration wouldn’t discuss it.
During the campaign, Obama bristled and dodged discussion of his academic and medical records, which were never fully disclosed. Indeed, a few days ago, when the new president wandered into the press room and reporters impudently asked him a question, the chief made it clear that such visits would end if they kept up such shenanigans.
Fact is, nobody really likes transparency—we just like transparency for people we don’t like. And there is nothing cheaper than transparency talk: Bernie Madoff had been known to pontificate about it in open Congressional and SEC forums. While not a crime, Merrill Lynch’s John Thain invoked transparency after suggestions arose that he hadn’t entirely disclosed Merrill’s losses before being acquired by Bank of America.
I advise my clients to embrace transparency—real hard: Demand it not only of yourself but of your critics and see what happens. The irony of our Transparapalooza is that the very forces that claim to want transparency the most probably couldn’t sustain it.
As we wade deeper into the Obama era, let’s consider the rhetoric of another magical kingdom—the one in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. Throughout the narrative, the cunning Sicilian, Vizzini, shouts “Inconceivable!” whenever a plot doesn’t work out. His sidekick, the big-hearted swordsman, Inigo Montoya, finally counsels Vizzini: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. Eric's first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.