Communicating in an Era of Radical Transparency

Posted on January 3, 2012 by Grupp Global

As a public relations profession, I admire people who sometimes have radical goals but who adopt moderate tactics. It seems to me that the pursuit of peaceful and constructive change, on almost any level, always has to leave open the possibility you might be wrong or that better ideas exist. Going a little bit more slowly than your ardent followers might want is one method for accommodating that possibility.

Meanwhile in the last ten years or so, the internet has provided the ability to link millions of people across the globe in essentially peaceful dialogue. This global conversation has obvious and enormous benefits, but it also presents new challenges, not only for the companies and clients we represent, but also for governments.

Recent events in the Middle East illustrate how online communications and conversation are redefining the relationship between government and society. In the United States, the Wikileaks controversy illustrates the battle to protect information that the U.S. government considers rightfully secret. Events like these inevitably cause people to demand that our clients – whether they be governments or companies– become more open and transparent.

In this environment of “radical transparency,” the challenge for public relations is to enable clients to provide on-demand and increasingly on-line access to data and information – that with analysis – transforms “information” into “knowledge” that adds value to organizational mission and objectives.

This is the role of Chief Public Relations Officers – to be trusted counselors who influence CEOs and senior executives on how to treat employees, vendors, investors, customers and neighbors, not just how to communicate with them. Increasingly in the United States and many other countries, this is the role of Public Affairs Officers when counseling governments and elected officials.

Building effective relationships with our various publics requires that organizations treat each stakeholder as truly central to the business or organization.

This style of communicating requires a change in thinking for many organizations. It requires getting past “control” of messages, which is not realistic in Internet-based societies today. And it requires facilitated internal collaboration among groups that have not always embraced this approach. In private sector companies, that includes business units, regional units, legal, human resources, and marketing, among other business functions.

We must teach and empower even junior communicators to respectfully question and probe business practices, standards, and proposed actions with their business-side counterparts. This will require broadening and deepening our business acumen. We can’t ask business people at any level to trust public relations people until we prove we speak their language, understand their motivations, and can add value to the business.

The ability of public relations professionals to see organizations from all angles uniquely qualifies us to lead organizations to a platform of truth, trust, and transparency. We must describe and illustrate the external environment for what it is, not what someone else wants it to be.

And we must see our audiences as more than employees, customers and investors, but rather consumers of information like everyone else, with diverse interests, outlooks and ideologies.

We have an obligation to counsel clients – whether they are governments or private sector companies — to find common ground with our audiences and stakeholders and encourage dialogue – leaving open the possibility that better ideas exist. We must continually ask ourselves:

  • What is the balance point between access to information using online applications – and audience expectations for transparency?
  • How can we constructively counter inclinations by both governments and companies to “lock down” access and free flow of data and information at precisely the time when more transparency and conversation are needed?
  • How does enterprise-wide access to information become a catalyst to synchronizing and integrating all departments and functions?
  • How can on-demand, fact-based information lead thought in social media?

Moving forward, transparency will be much greater than most governments, companies and clients can imagine today.

Our opportunity is to guide our clients to understand and embrace that possibility.

Robert W. Grupp

President, Grupp Global Partners LLC

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