Corporate Blogging Survey 2005
 
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November 21, 2005

Using ‘Synthetic Transparency’ to set Expectations on the level Of Transparency Found On Your Corporate Blog

Dr. Walter Carl, a professor of advanced organizational communication at Northeastern University, recently defined the term synthetic transparency on his blog by stating, “Synthetic transparency involves using blogs to give the impression of openness, honesty, and transparency but without really doing so.? The term will prove really helpful to companies developing corporate blogs as it will provide some yardstick to measure their own blog’s level of transparency. A number of bloggers have commented on the term, read on to find out more about the current discussion and my thoughts on why the term is going to be so useful to corporate bloggers.

Josh Hallett had previously discussed the issue of transparency on his blog, and thought that, “Making a big deal out of the fact that you are "transparent" only makes me suspicious that you are hiding something.?

While Dag Hammarskjold, Swedish diplomat; secy-general of UN 1953-1961; posthumous Nobel Prize in Peace 1961; died in airplane crash said,

“You are the lens in the beam. You can only receive, give, and possess the light as the lens does. If you seek yourself, you rob the lens of its transparency. You will know life and be acknowledged by it according to your degree of transparency, your capacity, that is, to vanish as an end, and remain purely as a means.?

Both Dag and Josh hold the position that the more you try to appear transparent, the less likelihood of you been perceived as being transparent. Corporate bloggers can give the appearance of transparency by giving their audience the ability to interact with them easily, by setting up comments, and allowing trackbacks. Yet, if a corporate blogger does not really engage their audience when they pose a question through a comment or trackback, the company will not really be very transparent. Having the elements available within a blog design for interaction with an audience only gives the appearance of transparency; actual transparency exists when those online tools like commenting and trackbacks are used.

Fredrik Wackå states that, “A blog that's just the old press releases is no blog and it will never have the positive effect a blog can have. I think we all agree to that.? Fredik is right a blog that just rehashes the same old press releases without any interaction with their audience is not a blog. Corporate blogs are different from corporate websites, there are different expectations as to the level of transparency on a corporate website compared to a corporate blog. People will expect the content on a corporate website will solidly reflect the marketing messages of a company in a very positive way. Visitors would not expect to find criticism or negative feedback on a corporate website. While on a blog there is the expectation that there is the possibility of finding some thoughtful critiques of ideas and even products from the audience. Blogging is after all about the ability of an audience to join in a conversation with the blogger and their community, and sometimes conversations involve disagreements between participants.
Fredik further states,

“But I also think that many would agree that we can't talk about everything in a blog. There is information that would hurt us if it became publicly known (deals being negotiated, for example).

Does that mean that blogging by definition is synthetic transparency? In that case, could it be any other way? Or how can we achieve authentic transparency and still have a job??

Essentially its up to a company and blogger to set the guidelines of what they will be willing to discuss on a blog. A corporate blogger should set their own conventions as to the level of transparency on a blog, and reveal those guidelines both formally from a link on the blog, and within a post or on a comment. A corporate blogger should not assume that blog readers will be able to find your guidelines, reveal all in the post, or send people who comment on your blog an email with your guidelines.

The General Motors Fastlane blog has generated a lot of press, rightly so as one of the largest companies in the US. Earlier this summer two GM blog readers described their experience with commenting on the GM blog. Both customers were surprised that their comments did not receive a response on either the blog or through an email from the company. Authors on the Fastlane blog have posted regularly that while all comments are read that they cannot answer every comment. It seems from conversations with blog readers of the GM blog, there is an expectation amongst some blog readers who make comments that their comments will receive a response.

General Motors has limited its level of transparency, in that they have given the appearance of being willing and able to answer comments, yet they have a formal policy of not replying to every comment. This policy has been stated a number of times in blog posts. A company should understand that customers who are new to a blog, will not read every post, and it is up to the company to ensure the reader sees their blogging policy, otherwise misunderstandings will arise that cause frustration for readers about the level of transparency on a blog. The GM blog is unintentionally synthetically transparent. GM can remedy the situation by placing statements about their policy just underneath every post and before the comments section on a post, 1) to inform potential blog readers who might comment that their comment will probably not receive a reply, and 2) to inform the audience that blog readers will most likely not receive a reply. You can read more about the interviews with the GM customers and suggestions on how General Motors can avoid synthetic transparency on an earlier post about the GM Fastlane Blog, ? The GM Blog: Lessons For Customer Blogging Relations.?

One blog that is open about restricting their level of transparency is the American lung association of Minnesota blog (ALAMN). Robert Moffit of the American lung association explained how his association decided not to allow comments on their blog, as there is an active blogger pro-smoking community in Minnesota. The ALAMN was concerned that if they allowed comments, pro-smoking bloggers might comment on their blog that disagree with the ALAMN’s position on their blog. Robert was concerned that the board of directors for the association would require the blog to remove the comments or shut the blog down. Rather than face those possibilities, the ALAMN went ahead with a blog that does not allow commenting. In effective the organization set the expectation that a reader could not interact in a public way on the blog. The ALAMN has received some criticism through direct emails for not allowing comments on the blog. But at this stage in the development of the ALAMN’s blog such a design makes sense for that organization.

Is the ALAMN being intentionally synthetically transparent, or because they are upfront about their level of transparency by not allowing comments is the ALAMN just defining what level of transparency the organization is willing to accept. I’d suggest it’s the latter, by establishing the design of the blog without comments, the ALAMN makes a clear statement about their level of transparency, and there can be no misunderstandings here. The ALAMN is not being synthetically transparent.

Jeremy Pepper comments on synthetic transparency within the context of PR professionals,

“As communicators who blog and are counseling clients to blog, we need to lead by example. That does not mean by just having an About page that says who your clients are, instead of disclosing in the post, that you are excused.

That does not mean posting about clients and projects without noting they are clients and projects.

That does not mean you can take the line that "well, if they click through, the reader will see I'm quoted in the article."

That does not mean you even need to link to articles, because that is just whoredom.

That isn't real transparency; it is a 'polyester' ... tacky and out-dated.?

Giving the appearance of transparency is easy to achieve, but hard to maintain, as the General Motors Blog example illustrates. A corporate blogger really has to measure their level of synthetic transparency on their blog in general and on every post as Jeremy suggests. Measuring requires a yardstick, and the term ‘synthetic transparency’ provides a tool for corporate bloggers to determing a blog’s level of transparency.

Managing transparency as new issues arise within blog posts is difficult, just as a blogger checks for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors a corporate blogger should check for the transparency of every post and if it meets their stated blog policy guidelines. Charlene Li provides some advice on setting a blogging policy for a corporate blog. While Blog design is really the easy part of measuring the transparency of a blog, a blogger can design their blog in such a way to clearly set expectations with their readers.

The phrase ‘synthetic transparency’ will help companies to set expectations of what blog readers can expect from corporate blogs, by setting a yardstick, corporate bloggers will use the term to determine if the design of their blog is un-intentionally synthetically transparent, and if a post meets their own blog's guidelines.

Posted by johncass at November 21, 2005 4:26 PM

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Using ‘Synthetic Transparency’ to set Expectations on the level Of Transparency Found On Your Corporate Blog:

» Transparency, blogging and corporate blogs from Seven Generational Ruminations
One of the supposed advantages to blogging is that it's supposedly transparent. By posting your thoughts openly, freely, in a personal voice, etc, that somehow makes the process transparent. Hmmm... I'm not sure. Transparency, How Far Do We Go? Blog tra [Read More]

Tracked on November 29, 2005 10:47 PM

Comments

Great post John! For "synthetic tranparency" to have any real currency it needs to be concretely applied to specific blogs like you do in your post. Nice work!

Posted by: Walter Carl at November 23, 2005 1:14 AM

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