Paul Holmes 25 Apr 2012 // 11:00PM GMT
It’s a long time since I started using the phrase “age of transparency” in an attempt to persuade senior managers that they needed to conduct business on the assumption that everything they said and did would one day find its way onto the front page of The New York Times or The Guardian. In fact, a few years ago—as social media ratcheted up the scrutiny even further—I had to start talking about an age of “radical transparency” to reflect even greater intensity. My advice then—as now—was to make every business decision as if there was a camera in the room. I found two techniques particularly effective for focusing the attention of senior management on this possibility: the first was to have them imagine what the Times or Guardian article might say (even going so far as to write an article in the style of the relevant publication, dramatic headline and all); the second was to ask them how they would feel if their mother read that article and called them up to explain their decision. The front pages of those two newspapers have in the past few days provided timely reminders that transparency is being forced upon business leaders, and that most of them either don’t believe it or have convinced themselves that it can’t happen to them. How else to explain why the management team at Wal-Mart believed it could get away with covering up allegations of systemic bribery in the company’s Mexican operations? How else to explain why the Murdoch clan and its senior management team believed its attempt to influence—in some cases, to dictate—government policy in the UK would never attract the attention and outrage of rival media? The reality is that in this social media era, this age of radical transparency, this kind of manipulation and deceit is discovered much more quickly, and punished much more severely than it would have been in the recent past. Right now, in a board room just a few miles from your office, a CEO is making the decision to cover-up corporate wrongdoing. Maybe he’s thinking that like Wal-Mart, he can get away with it for five or six years. Maybe he’s thinking that by then he will be retired, and living off a comfortable pension. He’s wrong. And it’s your job, as a public relations counselor, to convince him of that fact.