You're Not Going to Get Away With It

I find it truly astounding that -- at a time when nearly everyone carries a device that can capture video, photos and audio, and then instantly upload that content online -- so many organizations still talk about transparency as if it is somehow optional.

Or worse, aspirational.

Because as worn out as the term has become, here is what transparency really means: You're not going to get away with it. So you better get in front of it.

Corporate communications leaders -- and any agency that serves as their buttress or proxy -- must recognize that they are not doing themselves, their organizations or their clients any favors by perpetuating the delusion that serious breaches of ethics or standards will never come to light.

Everybody has a cell phone. Every public space has security cameras. Every service provider and server reveals the email trail.

Whatever you think you can make go away -- whether it is as deathly serious as the recent, deplorable high-profile cases of violence by professional athletes against women and children, and sexual abuse and harassment in the military and on campus; or just the gross-out health violations of disgruntled teenagers at fast food restaurants -- is eventually going to go public, in a big way.

Unfortunately, to far too many communications professionals, the call for greater transparency really means reveal as little as possible as slowly as possible, and serve it up with a tall, watery mea-culpa of crocodile tears.

But a lack of transparency is not what causes these problems. To think it does is to conflate the actions with what are often their very just ramifications.

The real problem is a serious lack of accountability -- and all the professional, and even civic, ethics that comprise it at the individual and organizational levels. And that is what brands and businesses should be calling for, not transparency after a lack of accountability has been revealed.

Accountability is vigilant. It doesn't simply promote or profess core values and standards as some sort of empty branding exercise -- or worse, the hollow promises of a crisis communications plan. It enforces them, clearly and consistently, at all levels.

When organizations foster a culture of accountability, they take action. Real action -- not spin. That is the role -- and definition -- of true, effective and strategic communications counsel: Advising on and conveying the significant and impactful steps that will strengthen a brand or business -- both internally and in the assessments of their stakeholders.

If organizations have the courage and consistency to establish a culture of accountability, not only will transparency naturally flow from it -- so will the deeper consumer connection that halos a brand through success and adversity alike.

Think of any number of recent crises, and imagine how dramatically different the reaction to them would have been if the organizations involved had broken the news themselves, with detailed and concrete strategies to tackle the underlying issues. People's ability to accept and forgive is at times stupefying and at times inspiring. But what they will not tolerate is deception, obfuscation and hypocrisy. Especially when the graphic refutations are playing in a near constant loop on screens, large and small, all around them.

Does this present a challenge to communications professionals? Yes, and an especially serious ones for those who cling to wishful thinking -- or sling it to their clients. But it presents an even greater opportunity for organizations everywhere to assess their core values and standards -- and then take the consistent, necessary steps to truly live up to them. Not only will they become a stronger and more successful organization, they will also create a safer and healthier environment for all the people they employ and impact.

Today's business, brand and communications leaders have a choice: They can take these steps privately and internally to better their organizations. Or they can take them under the glaring, harsh spotlight of an angry, and highly connected, global audience.