Transparency Versus Translucency

In PR, especially in the area of crisis communications, we repeatedly are told that organizations must maintain transparency in sharing relevant information with the public. The key word here is “relevant.” But is transparency the best policy?

When I was in high school, two friends and I managed to sneak into one of our school’s basketball games without paying. We thought little of it until the next day when the principal summoned us. Our punishment was to call our mothers and confess our misdeed.

As painfully embarrassing as it was to tell my mom that I had done this bad thing, this was all I told her. There were other things I did in high school that I am happy she never learned about.

When BP addressed the issue of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010, the company’s communicators worked to address the relevant issues. In keeping focus on the problem at hand and the company’s efforts to control it, the PR team did not offer to media a complete list of the corporation’s sins.

Admitting that the entity you represent is imperfect and capable of making mistakes is vital. Stating that action is being taken to resolve those mistakes is imperative. Expressing concern for those directly affected is essential. But sharing too much information can result in headlines that focus on points that are not relevant and may even supplant information that is more important to the public.

The point is this: total transparency is a myth. But translucency—sharing relevant information—should be the goal in a crisis. Making leadership available to media is a good practice, but leadership should know the limits of what can be said.

Having a filter on what you say is necessary when you are in a casual, informal conversation with a media member. It is utterly crucial when addressing a crisis issue with media. Be translucent, not transparent.

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