I embrace social media 100% and as a business owner social media has been proven for me. But, I know that a lot of marketing and PR professionals who are now just sticking their toe in the proverbial social media pool have questions; especially around the meaning and implementation of transparency.

As social media evangelists we talk about social media transparency and the importance of being forthright, authentic and honest. We also discuss that it's about the “who” (people) not the “what” (brand or company), an important part of being transparent when it comes to social media.

That said, recently two incidents have happened that are making me re-think the term transparency.

As a business owner the first one is personal, but I think it's important to share. In early February my father-in-law passed away and I was offline for over a week. A lot of people were contacting me because it wasn't the norm and they were worried. When I jumped back online, I finally left a comment on Jason Fall's blog (Kevin Palmer's guest post) that I had told Kevin weeks before that I would write. Kevin might not have even notice that I hadn't commented, but I wanted to keep my word. In commenting I apologize for the delay “due to a family situation.” And in retrospect, that was probably a mistake. Honestly, I didn't want to be transparent…it was a private family matter, not for public consumption (even though there was a very public obituary). But, in trying to be transparent, I might have ended up seeming non-professional. I should have just said “sorry to be late to the party” the usual comment for tardiness. The thing is, people did know what had happened and offered their condolences online, it wasn't a secret if people were paying attention to my Twitter stream. I have talked about my family before on Twitter, but this was different for me.

The second incident happened just yesterday. During the ghost writing debate, I was publicly annoyed because I felt that Heather and Mike Whaling were not being transparent in their use of social media (Twitter) while debating me (i.e. meaning that they were tweeting as two representatives from two agencies versus a married couple). I found out after the fact from Mike's client, Eric Brown, that Heather and Mike were actually married. When I learned that, I just felt that the situation was disingenuous (not that they are  disingenuous mind you, there's a difference and I don't believe that at all). Mike left a really nice note in which he explained that he didn't think it was necessary to mix personal with professional. I totally get that, but I stated that in this particular situation I thought it was indeed very important to be transparent. But at the end of the day, it's Mike's personal decision to determine the level of transparency that's best for him, his business and his family, right? Not all of us are on the same page for how much transparency is appropriate.

For a brief moment, let's think about these situations from a non-social media perspective. Would they have happened in a traditional, offline environment? I bet they would, but would have been handled differently. We understand business conduct and yet we are still trying to work out how social media best works for business when we all have a voice and the desire to be “real.”

Here's the one way we could potentially look at the spectrum of outbound communications (I am basing these loosely on light transmission definitions since we are talking about transparency):

  • Opaque - where most companies lie in the spectrum. One-way conversations (i.e. normal marketing/PR)
  • Translucent - Forthright, not revealing all, but still two-way conversations. (Ex: a person can be very professional on Twitter, engaging, but still not discussing his/her personal life)
  • Transparency - Crystal clear, real two-way conversations (you know about this person's personal life, business experience, product/service they market/brand, etc.).

From a business perspective is being translucent okay when it comes to social media? Are we using the word transparency correctly? Do we need to know everything? Do we care or not care to know everything? Do you want to feel like you have a transparent relationship with a brand/company? What happens when transparency goes wrong? What works?

Who decides what the appropriate level of transparency is? Who makes the rules? The person, the company or the community in which they interact? Where are the boundaries?

Lots of questions here…

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