Got Transparency?

This blog represents a class project I completed for a web communication class while studying Media Arts & Design at James Madison University. 

New social media (blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc.) provide corporate communicators with excellent tools to build and uphold their company’s reputation. Transparency and authenticity are important in maintaining a company’s reputation. Especially today, where trust in business is waning, it is important for companies to be open with the public.

Merriam-Webster gives good working definitions of the two words:

  • Transparent: without pretense or deceit; readily understandable; business practices characterized by visibility or accessibility to information
  • Authentic: deserves to be accepted or believed to be based on fact; true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

On this blog I examine  case studies related to corporate transparency and authenticity in new social media.

Please feel free to comment!


Whether you have been reading my posts from the beginning or you just stumbled upon my blog today, I have been posting about corporate transparency and authenticity in new social media. Now I am going to wrap up with some ground rules.

Brad Rawlins of Bringham Young University, published a study with the intent of creating an instrument to gauge stakeholder perception of transparency. He surveyed employees of a health care organization to see what they thought made an organization trustworthy.

His findings relate to what I have been posting about these past weeks. Transparent organizations should have integrity, respect, and open communication. He also found that organizations could do this in several ways. I will relate a few of them with new social media.

  • High participation: Web 2.0 is a wonderful tool when it comes to communication. Whether it’s communicating to your consumers on a social network like Twitter (see the Ford post) or letting employees communicate via podcasts (see the Microsoft post). Participation in dialog with stakeholders shows that you care and that can do wonders for your corporate reputation.
  • Substantial information: Are you white-washing the facts, or are you being open? You must provide your stakeholders with the facts they need to know. If you think it is something relevant to them, you can bring it up on your blog (like CEO Paul Levy did about his salary). It also needs to be in clear language that they will be able to understand.
  • Accountability: Are you accountable to your stakeholders? By starting a conversation with them online you are. Let their comments go unregulated (within reason) and listen to what they have to say about you. Also of importance is actually following through with results when things do go wrong.

I learned over the course of writing this blog, that transparency and authenticity are crucial elements for any organization. When it comes down to reputation and credibility (as it always will) there is no excuse to not be open and honest. The rules are changing now that more companies are using Web 2.0. There have been some great uses of these new tools and some poor ones. The only way to be successful is to keep trying  and also remember to be truthful while you do it. The truth will always come out, why don’t you use it to your advantage?

To begin to sum up my blog about transparency and authenticity, I would like to look at a gray area. This is the place of the PR professional in social media. As I have said before, some professionals have had the misfortune to be caught lying (Whole Foods). But for most professionals, who have no intention of being fraudulent, where does the line fall between being a “person online” and being a “business person online”?

Ike Pigott, writer of the blog, Occam’s RaZr wrote a post called, “PR and the Gray Zone.” In it he talks about the role of PR professionals in new social media. He notes that it is hard to know what your role is as a business person online. Especially if you try to be honest and people still want to kick you out of an online conversation because you represent a business.

I think this venn diagram designed by Pigott is an excellent representation of what a PR person should be online. In it the social media professional is transparent, professional and an advocate for their organization. Note that being a “transparent professional” would make you a reviewer and being a “professional advocate” would make you an astroturfer. Where do you fall on this diagram?


Check out this video by Chris Brogan. He reminds us that as business people we should not come off sounding like a used car salesmen. I think it drives home the ideas I have covered today.

To sum up, being transparent and authentic is key when you go online as a business professional. Being upfront with people about who you are and what your motives are will make all the difference. Yes, some people will still be adverse to talking to you because you represent an organization. However, there are plenty of people who want to talk to you because they have an interest in your product. Conversation is key. You must get to know people and figure out their needs to discern whether or not you can fulfill them.

I attended Edelman’s Digital 101 symposium this weekend at JMU. It focused on how social media can be used in Public Relations. We also worked on “mini campaigns” in small groups during the two sessions. My group’s client was Burt’s Bees. While we were researching the company, I could not help but notice the parallels to authenticity. While Burt’s Bees did not have a crisis situation like Ford Motor Company (see my last post), they had a situation where they needed to dispel a myth.

Our group researched in the blogosphere to see what people were saying about the company and we found that bloggers were typically positive about Burt’s Bees products. However there were some negative comments about the company being bought by Clorox. According to The New York Times, Clorox does not have the best reputation with environmentalists, who say that bleach is harmful to the environment.

Customers of Burt’s Bees worried that the company was selling out and would lose their signature earth friendly practices by being bought by a corporation.

Burt’s Bees did a good job of squashing these worries by showing that they would stay true to their values. Burt’s Bees blog addressed this issue in a post entitled, “Is Clorox changing Burt’s Bees Products?” that said just because Clorox bought the company, it did not mean they would change.

Burt’s Bees also focused their website on their values of corporate social responsibility and being environmentally conscious. They have a presence on Facebook where you can watch videos about different environmental issues. Burt’s Bees is actively involved with Habitat for Humanity and many other initiatives. Check out this video they created with the co-founder of the company, Burt Shavitz about Colony Collapse Disorder (which results in the death of bees).

Burt’s Bees does a good job of showing that their motives for environmental sustainability are still pure, even though they were bought out by a corporation. Proving you will stay authentic to your brand is key when a company changes hands, otherwise you could lose the original supporters that made you so successful in the first place.

Moving on from last week’s discussion of mishandled transparency, I want to talk about how companies can utilize new social media and transparency during times of crisis. A slideshow by Livingston Communications, “Crisis Communication on the Social Web,” emphasizes that it is critical to not forget the human element of crisis communication. It is not just a matter giving the facts: don’t forget that people respond to genuine emotions, authentic tone, and real conversation.

In one example, Scott Monty of Ford Motor Company used Twitter to be openly transparent when a crisis situation arose at the company. According to Ron Ploof’s “The Ranger Station Fire,” (embedded at the bottom of this post). Ford sent a notice to the owner of a Ford fan site, The Ranger Station, to turn over the URL and pay the company $5,000. The owner of the URL posted this information on his website and fans of the site started an uproar.

Through a series of 138 Tweets over 19 hours Monty kept followers of his Twitter account updated on the issues at hand. He asked followers to “retweet” the messages that he posted so that he could reach more people.

More information came out that the site owner  was selling counterfeit goods on the site and that was why Ford had sent the letter. Monty was able to come to an agreement with the site owner and the crisis was dispelled. If you would like to read about it in more depth here is Ron Ploof’s “The Ranger Station Fire.”

You can also listen to this podcast interview with Scott Monty from: For Immediate Release’s The Hobson & Holtz Report. Monty talks in depth about the role of Twitter in this situation.

This is an example of how Twitter can be utilized to reach people quickly and keep them updated as little things arise. By keeping in touch with key publics and letting them know what is going on during a situation, your company shows that it cares and wants to reach a solution. No one can predict when problems will occur, but being able to reach people quickly (like using Twitter), you can put a face to your issues.

The Fine Line

The Whole Foods scandal I talked about in the last post was about blatant dishonesty in new social media. Now I want to post about finding the line between astroturfing and ethical behavior when talking about corporate social media. The blog post from The Buzz Bin, that I referenced in the last post, “Astroturfing on the Dark Side of the Moon,” by Geoff Livingston does a good job of discussing where the line should be drawn.

Livingston raises the point that all corporate social media efforts are funded marketing campaigns, so does this make them all astroturfing? There is a fine line between what is ethical and unethical in corporate social media.

In one example involving the corporate blog for the diet pill alli, the blog’s creator Debbie Weil sent out emails to colleagues asking them to comment on it. You can read what her email said here.

Is it fair to ask colleagues to do this? Or is it even a big deal? Considering the rules of new social media are still being written, it is more important than ever to remember that it always looks better to err on the side of truthfulness.

As Susan Getgood says in her blog, Marketing Roadmaps, the question should not be: is it ok to ask for comments– it should be: why isn’t the blog getting comments of it’s own accord? Getgood points out that it was because the alli blog focused on the product, not the people.

This is a great point to bring up when talking about transparency and authenticity. When organizations use social media effectively, they should be creating a genuine conversation with their publics. This has a lot to do with knowing who your publics are and what they need. When they actually need or want something; they will respond.

I have posted a lot about organizations that have effectively used Web 2.0 to convey transparency and authenticity. Now I want to look at the other side of the coin: when companies have used new social media to impede transparency. To begin this discussion I will talk about astroturfing.

According to The Buzz Bin, astroturfing is false PR or phony social media in the blogosphere, especially in corporate social media related events. They are public relations campaigns that want to create the impression that they were spontaneous, grassroots behavior.

One such example comes from the actions of the CEO of Whole Foods. According to MSN Money, CEO John Mackey attacked smaller competitor Wild Oats Markets under the alias, “rahodeb.” Mackey posted anonymously on Internet financial forums, saying that Wild Oats’ stock was overpriced and questioned why anyone would buy its stock. Then Whole Foods announced it would buy Wild Oats.

This was a blatant use of social media for dishonest purposes and a breach of transparency. If the CEO of a company is going to comment about something online, he should identify himself. Especially if he is writing about his company’s competition and there are unidentified interests at hand (like Whole Foods’ decision to buy its competitor).

When utilizing Web 2.0 it is more important than ever for companies to be open and honest, especially when it is easier than ever to misrepresent themselves. Ethics should seriously be considered when a company decides to use social media. It is always better to be transparent because, as in the case of Whole Foods, you will most likely get caught.

You know your brand is authentic if people are willing to tattoo your logo on themselves. Harley Davidson is one of those iconic brands people identify with. An article from BizTimes discusses how Harley crafted its brand over a 105-year legacy. Harley has a lot to show for itself with its motorcycles, branded merchandise, licensed dealerships, and worldwide Harley Owners Group chapters.

According to Edelman’s “Get ‘Real’,” an authentic company stays true to their philosophy and their brand reflects their customer. Most importantly, they make their authenticity look effortless. Edelman cites Harley as authentic because the brand conveys an attitude and a lifestyle. Harley has a specific kind of consumer and has created a way of life for them to identify with.

Harley’s authenticity has been maintained in several ways. BizTimes reports that Harley stays connected to customers by sending employees out to events and rallies to gather feedback. Harley also puts their primary focus on their motorcycles, despite the other merchandise they sell. Celebration of the brand’s heritage also plays an important role. Every five years, hundreds of thousands of Harley riders and enthusiasts gather in Milwaukee for a multi-day celebration. Check out this video clip of the 105th Anniversary Parade.

Note the multitude of people that came out to the parade and their overwhelming support and love of the brand. These people really identify the brand as their own. This is the mark of true authenticity.

Harley is using social media in several ways. The Harley Davidson website feels like a haven for motorcycle enthusiasts. You can also watch videos on YouTube, follow them on Twitter, and join their Facebook group. Not to mention the Harley Owners Group’s presence online. H.O.G.’s mission sums it up perfectly: to think of Harley as one big family, from the CEO to the newest owner.

Harley Davidson is a great example for companies looking to become more authentic. It is about focusing on your product and creating a community for those who buy that product. If you can make your consumers feel like a family you have done your job.