Seeing right through it

Transparency is not always an advantage

If you want to sound honest, it’s popular to describe your organisation as accountable, ethical, or having integrity right now. These attributes are all twice as common in press releases as they were in 2002.

But if you’re looking for the really hot word at the moment to show you’re not a bunch of liars or crooks, then there really isn’t anything to compare with saying that you provide, support or exhibit transparency – a term which was almost unused 10 years ago. In Factiva’s press release archive for 2009, one out of every 44 press releases was claiming some sort of transparency. That’s almost twice as many mentions as goody-goody integrity, and four times as many as dull old accountability. Last year a claim of some type of transparency was six times as frequent as it was in 2002, when Enron and Worldcom were on our minds:

Which industry claims the most transparency? First I looked in the obvious place: the glass manufacturing industry. Its press releases rarely claim transparency:

Banking was barely above average. Perhaps the score is dragged down because when the board didn’t even understand the risks the banks faced, it’s hard for them to claim too much transparency a year or two later. Software press releases, where so many vague buzzwords are popularised, scored higher:

In the week that an ex-minister told a fake lobbyist he was a cab for hire to peddle behind-the-scenes influence for £5,000 a day, political press releases optimistically mention transparency far often more than the average:

But nothing can compare, in its determination to talk about transparency, with our winning category. It’s obviously a great relief to find that, the week after Ernst & Young was forced to deny accusations of malpractice, negligence and failure to exercise professional care in its audit of Lehman Brothers, accountancy press releases were the biggest users of transparency that I could find in 2009 – by a factor of five:

Though, perhaps, it’s less reassuring to find out that E&Y alone issued 49 press releases that mention the T-word since the beginning of 2006.

Provided you are not a glass manufacturer, your actual level of transparency is impossible to measure. It is one of those aspirational words that anyone can claim for free. Unless you are accused of helping to hide $50bn of debt for a client (for example), a claim that you provide/support/exhibit accountability/integrity/transparency will go untested. Transparency, as the least testable of the three, is also the most useful in this regard.

So good news for those of you who work for unaccountable, integrity-lite companies, if indeed such frightful companies exist: if you want to claim some fake transparency in a press release, nobody will find out that you’re bullshitting. After all, by definition, a lack of transparency is pretty hard to spot.

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1 Response to “Seeing right through it”

  1. 1 Brett Hetherington March 23, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    This transparency caper has now extended to this kind of “journalism:”

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