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New takes on transparency

In the current climate of rapid spread of communication on the web, particularly social media, transparency and practices surrounding it have to evolve.

I wrote about transparency close to the beginning of this series of columns, saying that transparency can be practised in different degrees, but that whatever the degree it produces widespread consent for the organisation’s operations, as it touches particularly on the realm of accountability to stakeholders, and it also demonstrates the level of competence and / or knowledge vested in the organisation, to those stakeholders.
The blooming of social media makes transparency all the more important. Very little can be hidden, whether posts are justified or not, and everything can be elaborated upon, sometimes entering the realm of wild conspiracy theory, such as David Icke’s idea that the world is run by a race of reptilians masquerading as humans.
The best possible example of a situation gone completely wrong can be found in the ill-advised comment by Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe who said that “access to water should not be a public right”. The net result is that Nestlé has not been able to successfully de-escalate the anger, the meme appears regularly, online petitions are a regular item, and based on close scrutiny the company is now associated with exploitation of water resources for profit in drought areas.
Had Brabeck-Letmathe uttered those words about 30 years ago, he might have gotten away with it. Very little can be hidden in the bright light of social media, and the new reality really does require behaviour that can stand up to scrutiny.
There has been some discussion about banning social media, however this has its downside. Things that are said can be said by anyone, and a ban on social media can just as easily be circumvented with virtual private networks. The ability to bring legal liability to bear is also difficult as posts can be done anonymously or from territories where posters have legal impunity.
In reality, it is probably better to hear and address problems, rather than leave them unheard. The other side of the divide is that transparency by virtue of good governance and all the elements that contribute to accountability, reduce attacks and improve stakeholder perception.
The first thing is to consider the sensibilities of stakeholders. Don’t for instance, bottle oxygen then try to achieve market dominance by denying that breathing should not be a human right. Understand your stakeholders, down to the level of their most basic needs and rights. Then consider the wants as well.
Secondly, understand the entity from which you communicate. If your entity’s corporate philosophy can withstand the honest scrutiny of your stakeholders, particularly communities or interest groups, state your corporate philosophy to ensure that your boundaries are understood. Everyone will want more, most likely for less, but you cannot pander in an unrealistic manner.
The third thing is to establish a reference point. This should be a website, but should also be enhanced with regular communication the channels used by your stakeholders. This can be email but should also now use social media. Offer encouraging statements, but continuously refer back to boundaries.
The fourth point is to recognise an ongoing discontent and address it as effectively as possible. If there are a major number of stakeholders attacking on the same point, something is obviously wrong, especially if you get an Avaaz petition.
There may however be single individuals who attack regularly, if not on a single point, then on many. The best way to identify these trolls is to engage them on an individual basis, examine their intent, and if it is driven by the personal need to express anger, to block their channels of contact.
Social media can be intimidating, but it is the reality now, and transparency needs to consider it, and evolve as well.

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