Each company must tune in to its own transparent Channel 9

As a frequent traveler, I've come to appreciate something that United Airlines, alone in the airline industry, offers its passengers. It is a small, but valuable bit of transparency.

As a frequent traveler, I've come to appreciate something that United Airlines, alone in the airline industry, offers its passengers. It is a small, but valuable bit of transparency.

I'm referring to Channel 9 on the carrier's multi-channel audio systems. Passengers can listen in on the voice communications among pilots and air-traffic controllers.

What we hear isn't just jargon-laden chatter. It is a testament to proficiency, as men and women in planes, airport towers, and control centers work with one another to ensure that we make it safely where we're going and, for the most part, on schedule.

More than once, as a United flight approached a destination airport in bad weather, I've felt a higher level of tension in those voices. But the fundamental professionalism of these people has come through much more clearly.

At first glance, Channel 9 has nothing to do with PR or marketing. Look more closely.

When you can give your constituents - customers, suppliers, employees, and more - a deeper look into the process by which you do your business, you invite them to trust you more. This assumes, of course, that you do things professionally in the first place.

The Channel 9 audio inspires a greater sense of confidence in the crews, certainly. A bonus is listening to the air-traffic controllers, who have incredibly stressful jobs and operate with genuine grace. The US government is getting a PR bonus courtesy of United; I wonder if the government's public information folks have taken any lessons.

Why more airlines don't offer the equivalent service is a mystery. (And when a United captain declines to make it available on a given flight, I find myself wondering why.)

Corporate openness is still something of an oxymoron, but it's gaining. Channel 9 has inspired at least one other company to be more transparent. Microsoft named a part of its developer network after United's audio; the Channel 9 Web site features blogs, podcasts, and videos that open a window into Microsoft's development and developer-support processes.

Every enterprise should have a Channel 9-ish offering, preferably several. A press release, or über-produced video of how a product is made, doesn't qualify.

What does? No enterprise can be entirely transparent. But most can be more open than they are now, and anyone can shine more light on specific areas with little or no risk.

What emerges can't be scripted, which makes it unpredictable and, in some eyes, too dangerous. But in most cases, the risk of a small PR problem could be outweighed by the accrued good will.

Ideally, the openness will invite a broader conversation. We can learn a lot from people outside our organizations because internal opinions can be ingrown.

Again, this can't be universal. Microsoft takes its Channel 9 in directions United can't, such as nearly real-time commentary from outsiders in the comments. As much as I believe in corporate openness, I don't want anyone interrupting the communications between my pilots and the controllers, thank you.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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