Transparency is communication

My business is communication, which means both content and delivery are of concern to me. Part of my work involves understanding the different technologies used to convey information, because the choice is important to my clients. The medium influences the style and tone of their messages.

Nine years ago, I held an assignment with a police agency that permitted me to successfully implement new forms of internal communication to cut through layers of bureaucracy. Modes of publication evolve, but the argument in favor of accurate, direct, and timely communication is still valid.

In any organization, administrators can encounter a resentful workforce on one side and a demanding public on the other. Left to draw their own conclusions about the rationale for new business policies, personnel allocation, and budget priorities, people who are not in positions of power naturally tend to become suspicious and adversarial. Even when official explanations are provided, the truth is often distorted as it travels from one person to another and through different media. Human beings inevitably filter information as they pass it along.

Executives today face increasing demands to be more open about their businesses and the organizations they run. For those accustomed to having staff who handle requests for information and respond on their behalf, the thought of intentionally revealing details of the day-to-day work process seems counterintuitive. However, the articulate businessperson who uses transparency to avoid misunderstanding is gaining popularity and credibility among clients, customers, business associates, investors, employees, and community members. Clive Thompson explains how some maverick business communicators operate in his March 2007 Wired article, “The See-Through CEO.”

For a top administrator, part of the solution can be to adopt a clear voice heard well beyond the walls of a conference room. At relatively little expense, business owners and government officials can use channels of information that were inaccessible or cost-prohibitive until very recently. Advances in interactive technology can reduce isolation, help lower expenses, encourage business networking, and allow communities to flourish.

The new interview

Celebrity bloggers are finding themselves in the absurd position of being interviewed by journalists working in print media. It’s gratifying to watch the big dogs go at it from a distance after being in a similarly prickly debate with Steve Fox while he was serving as my editor during two weeks of volunteer work a month ago.

Fox actually had time for only one conversation with me, during which he mentioned twice that he hadn’t found time to read the dozen or more email messages from the writers contributing to the topic he’d assigned us. It’s true he was overwhelmed by a flood of volunteers. That happens when you assume the role of a gatekeeper.

Left to my own devices, I had formed an outsider’s opinion of the objectives of citizen journalism, open source journalism, or pro-am journalism—some of the terms used to describe the experimental journalism project in which I briefly participated. These three phrases in particular have since acquired different shades of meaning for many of us.

Tantalized by the possibility of engaging my interview subjects in an open online dialog, I contacted several law enforcement agencies, spoke to some progressive agency heads, and offered to facilitate blogging. At the time I spoke to Fox, I had not yet located the intrepid subject who would be the first to accept the challenge of participating in collaborative journalism on the Web.

Fox’s amused reaction to my approach came as a surprise. What I proposed to do was not journalism, he insisted. Instead, he strongly advocated a traditional, structured Q&A format followed by thoughtful reportorial analysis. He was, however, willing to publish audio recordings of interviews conducted by volunteer reporters. Fox was emphatic. “We’re interviewing major players,” he told me, “but we’re not telling Jeff Jarvis to just log on and tell his story.”

It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized Jeff Jarvis referred to Jay Rosen as his friend. (Rosen was Fox’s executive editor until a week after my phone conversation with Fox.) A talented project contributor interviewed Jarvis via email, and then Jarvis immediately posted the text of the interview on his blog, which certainly made me smile. Jarvis was owning his story. I think that’s fair, and it’s exactly what you’d expect from a blogger. Today, he asserts the traditional interview is outmoded.

Law enforcement officials are justifiably wary of dealing with the traditional news media, because their statements have been interpreted out of context in the past. Now, agencies like the Broward Sheriff’s Office publish their press releases through their own websites in an obvious effort to avoid being misquoted or accused of favoring a particular news outlet. CEOs are being exhorted to get transparent by blogging or vlogging. Some (but not all) of us really do want certain information straight from the source rather than after it’s been digested by an intermediary. We’re willing to try to discern who’s being honest. Sometimes it’s simply easier to analyze information that hasn’t been filtered.