Like it or not, business today is operating in an Age of Transparency, a time when every action of the corporation is subject to the kind of intense scrutiny - by the media, activist groups, employees, and ordinary citizens on the web - that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.This scrutiny extends to all company activities - where it sources its materials; whether it despoils the environment to get at those materials; how many cute third-world children it employs to turn those materials into products Westerners want to buy; and more.
Under the circumstances, it makes sense for corporations to act as if all they do and say will eventually find its way into the public domain, falling prey to the biased criticism of their opponents and the harsh judgment of a public all too willing to accept that corporations act with the basest motives.
Companies that haven't understood the implications of the Age of Transparency have paid dearly. Texaco executives surely never imagined, as they discussed the merits of "black jelly beans,
that their talks would end up on the front page of every US newspaper. Enron's top brass probably didn't envision a day when their dubious financial deals would be dissected by reporters and regulators.
But for companies that manage their business ethically and responsibly, transparency is a good thing. It builds trust. Consider the experience of the chemical industry, which through its Responsible Care program over the past decade has invited local communities into its plants, sharing an unprecedented amount of information with citizens. The industry has seen impressive approval ratings in the communities where it operates.
Meanwhile, industries that fail to embrace transparency face suspicion and mistrust. The biotech industry, which has long resisted labeling products that contain bioengineered ingredients, is a case in point. The longer the industry resists transparency, the more easily activists are able to make the case that it must have something to hide.
The biotech industry doesn't realize that the Age of Transparency has given rise to a new fundamental right - the right to know. People feel they are entitled to as much information as they need in order to make key decisions about what products to buy, what industries they want in their backyard, and what companies to invest in.
They want the right to give their "informed consent
in areas that could impact their lives, and consent can't be informed unless companies share more information.
That's why the reform of the financial markets, post-Enron, should be driven by a desire to make companies more transparent. It's why all efforts at political campaign reform must focus on increasing transparency, not curtailing individuals' rights to participate in the democratic process.
And it's why PR pros must become advocates for sharing as much information as possible with all stakeholders.
Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.