The Trouble with Transparency. | Bruce Turkel

The Trouble with Transparency
Last Friday’s edition of The New York Times included two stories on the trouble with transparency that few readers probably connected even though the problem affects all of us.

One article was about how Brian Williams “misremembered” his flight on a United States military helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire in 2003 under the headline, “With Apology, Williams Digs Himself Deeper.”
(This story was the subject of my blog post last week.)

The other, titled “Pascal Lands in Sony’s Outbox,” was further down the page and chronicled Sony Pictures Entertainment studio chief Amy Pascal’s trouble with transparency after “she made denigrating remarks about President Obama’s presumed preference for black-themed movies.”

So what do articles about a disgraced TV news anchor and the resigning top executive at Sony Pictures have in common? And why do you care?

Besides both people having top jobs in the media business, and both taking “indefinite leaves of absence” from those jobs, and both being in trouble for saying offensive things, there was one salient point that was most likely overlooked – both offenders were outed and pilloried by the Internet.

In the Williams’ article, CNN’s New Day host Chris Cuomo said, “the Internet would ‘eat him (Williams) alive.’” In Pascal’s case, hackers revealed her private emails in which her comments on President Obama’s movie preferences “became fodder for gossip sites, trade publications and mainstream news organizations.”

Not that anyone reading this blog needs to worry about either Williams’ or Pascal’s futures. The NBC host had a five-year, $10 million contract with the network and Sony’s executive exit included a four-year guaranteed payout of $30 to $40 million, a percentage of the profits on films she produced, and millions of dollars for annual office costs. Neither Williams nor Pascal will have to worry about where their next Fifth Avenue pied-à-terre is coming from and neither should you.

But what is worth worrying about is the trouble with transparency. That is, how easily both Williams’ and Pascal’s respective misdeeds were reported and repeated across the net.

Facts and occurrences that would have taken forever to catch fire years ago now become common knowledge overnight. And whether it’s Governor Chris Christie seen rooting against his home team in a private sky box or Mitt Romney getting caught on video making snide comments about “the other 47%” to a private audience or Pascal sending offensive emails in what she thought was a private conversation, the key protective word of the pre-Internet days, “private,” is now both passé and irrelevant.

Whether or not Williams, Pascal, or any other celebrities’ comments would be found guilty in a court of law no longer matters. Today they are instantly condemned in the court of public opinion. And today’s companies, terrified by the effect of such comments on their stock price and shareholder value, need to be quick to make defensive moves to protect their business. So do you.

Whether it’s a student posting a picture from a drunken frat party that later shows up in a job search or an errant tweet or email sent to “everyone” that was only intended for a specific recipient, the effect of today’s democratized communications is so fast – and so universal – that our code of behavior has not yet caught up with the consequences. And so stories such as the ones on the front page of The New York Times will only become more frequent, more devastating, and more far-reaching.

I’m not suggesting that these folks and many others don’t deserve to be outed for their mistruths and misdeeds—although I should add that most of us have said inappropriate things when we didn’t think anyone was listening. I sincerely do hope that such transparency will ultimately improve the tone and nature of public discourse and behavior. But in the meantime, every CEO, CMO, marketing professional, parent, and person on the ‘net needs to vigilantly guard their professional and personal reputation.

Remember that the walls may not have ears (at least not yet), but that every person with a smart phone has a recorder, a video camera, and a simple way to put your behavior online – and on trial – in a world where you are not presumed innocent until proven guilty.

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