Lesson 1: Transparency and the Disclosure of Information
Without trust, relationships cannot be built. If practitioners cannot be trusted they cannot build relationships with important publics such as members of the media, consumers, community members, employees and other stakeholders. One way that practitioners can build trust is through ethical disclosure. James E. Lukaszewski, co-chair of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) states that disclosure is the most important element of trust. He says that all important relationships rely on transparency and disclosure to build trust, and he notes that nearly every part of the PRSA Code of Ethics talks about or implies them. Similarly, the Page Principles also speak to the importance of truth and listening, and how they promote ethics, honesty and trust.Next Page: Transparency
Transparency is open, honest, and accessible communication. Transparency essentially has three purposes:
- to provide information to publics
- to increase participation
- to hold organizations accountable
Therefore, transparency affects trust. With the advent of the internet and social media, the transparency of nonprofit organizations, corporations, and governmental institutions has increased. The ability to engage in two-way communication and dialogue with publics is unprecedented because of these communication tools. Although this interactivity should serve to increase transparency, trust, and accountability, Kruckeberg warns of the dangers of pseudo-transparency.
Pseudotransparency is an involuntary or unknown transparency which ultimately creates mistrust and inauthenticy because it is based on disingenuous means. For example, when employees are made to “like” their company’s Facebook page pseudotransparency exists because most casual observers would think the employees liked the page of their own volition.
Asynchronous transparency is the situation that occurs when publics such as customers demand and expect full transparency from the organizations with which they interact, but are less than honest about themselves. For example, some people make false claims about companies on social media suggesting that products they bought were defective when such claims are not true.
Others might leave poor reviews and use fake or untraceable names such as customer2468 on those comments thereby making it impossible for organizations to follow-up and to respond to the accusations. Therefore, ethical practices and ethical communication underlie transparent communication.
So what is disclosure? Well, it is complicated.
Although the PRSA BEPS is still working to refine its guidelines and definition for the term, the board does use the following working definition for disclosure: “the intentional release of information to facilitate transparency, openness, access and accountability."
In other words, disclosure is about frankness. However, what often makes disclosure tricky is that sometimes practitioners cannot release information. Sometimes the information belongs to someone else. Sometimes the legal department says that information must be withheld. Sometimes information is confidential or proprietary and cannot be released. However, if practitioners withhold information or do not disclose information for no credible reason, they often help to create the scandals, ethical failures and other disgraces we read and hear about in the news.
Full disclosure is the deliberate attempt to make available all legally releasable information—whether positive or negative in nature—in a manner that is accurate, timely, balanced and unequivocal, for the purpose of enhancing the reasoning ability of publics and holding organizations accountable for their actions, policies and practices.
Full disclosure is the opposite of secrecy. It means that the organization is an open book. If a blogger is reviewing a product and is practicing full disclosure, the writer would need to let readers know if the company provided the product and if any compensation, monetary or otherwise, was received from said company.
With this information available, readers would know that the blogger did not just buy the product and decide to review it, but rather the blogger was approached and perhaps compensated by the manufacturer to do so. The reader could then make an informed decision about the review and its contents.
In contrast, limited disclosure describes a situation when not all information can be released. It is, perhaps, at times the practical interpretation of disclosure.
All practitioners will learn that there are some things you cannot say to anyone and some things that you cannot tell every public. In situations like these, practitioners must allow their ethics and codes of ethics to guide their selection of what to disclose and to whom. A practitioner must first determine what publics need what information. While consumers do not need to know the secret formula for making a product (such information would be considered proprietary), consumers do have the right to know what ingredients are in the product. Limited disclosure of information would be expected.
If you were a manager, you wouldn’t share employee evaluations with everyone. Again, limited disclosure of information is appropriate. Similarly, you wouldn’t share the concept and ideas for a new product on Twitter or Facebook because doing so would harm the organization you represent.
Likewise, you should not share confidential information from a previous employer that would provide an unfair and competitive advantage to your new boss. Even the PRSA Code of Ethics would uphold such decisions to limit what information is released because the code requires the appropriate protection of confidential and private information and advises members to safeguard against leaking proprietary information that could adversely affect some other party.
The Page Principles remind practitioners to conduct public relations as if the whole enterprise depends on it, therefore, decision making, policies and actions enacted by an organization should consider all stakeholders and their values and expectations. Limited disclosure is the ethical and expected response for all of these examples.
Honesty, Accuracy and Never Mislead or Deceive
Full and limited disclosure and transparency have something in common: All require honesty and accuracy.
A practitioner should never hide information on the behalf of his/her organization or client. Let’s return for a moment to the blogger example we used to explain full disclosure. If the blogger did not disclose that he/she had received the product from the company and/or that compensation was received for the review the public reading the blog would not have all the information necessary. The blogger would not be acting honestly.
The information would not be accurate because pertinent information had purposely been left out of the conversation. The communication would not be transparent. Practitioners should always be responsible with the information that they release, and they should be certain to release all information that is necessary for others to make decisions when purchasing a product or service or supporting a cause. By being transparent and by providing all needed information, an organization allows its publics to engage in responsible decision making. In fact, Lukaszewski says that when trust is needed, disclosure and candor and openness with speed should be a practitioner’s guiding principles.
Furthermore, a fundamental principle of public relations is never to mislead or deceive. Practitioners should always be as honest as they can under the circumstances they face. Not only are purposively omitting information or deceiving the public unethical and not transparent, but these actions are likely to pull organizations, clients, and practitioners into the embarrassment of being caught in a lie or partial truth.
Remembering the importance of disclosure and transparency is especially important during times of crisis or negative publicity. Honesty and accuracy can help an organization to regain trust, and trust has to exist to foster goodwill, which is always necessary for weathering a crisis or problem.
Disclosure and transparency involve two-way communication.
Two-way communication is something that you may have learned about in your previous coursework. It includes a message sender and a message receiver and adds feedback. Another way to think about two-way communication is to call it symmetrical communication. What should be highlighted in this model is the concept of feedback.
The receiver not only hears the message, but also listens to it, interprets it and responds to the sender.
Communication is further enhanced because both the sender and the receiver are active and involved in it. Disclosure is considered two-way communication because the practitioner sends a message to his/her publics and then awaits the public’s response.
The practitioner listens to the feedback and then adjusts the message based upon it when appropriate. This step makes the communication between the organization and the public more authentic and powerful because the practitioner demonstrates that what the public says matters. Therefore, listening to publics is often key to creating a dynamic and trusting communication environment, as the Page Principles remind us.
Disclosure and transparency can provide organizations with many benefits, but only when they build authenticity and trust. When communication is transparent and authentic, it builds trust. This helps practitioners build relationships with important publics. Transparency and disclosure are also important to publics and society because they allow for a democratic society and the free flow of ideas. Finally, transparency and disclosure help to enhance the profession of public relations because they help those outside the field to better understand what public relations is, what public relations is not, and the field’s commitment to ethical, truthful and symmetrical communication.
An important part of symmetrical communication is the concept that publics are informed and consent to the actions that members are taking. A public should not be asked for consent to an action without all the necessary information. Practitioners need to inform the publics involved so they can be informed and consent ethically to a decision. Having the consent of a public is an important important goal of many public relations campaigns, but in the long run only consent based upon information shared between an organization and its publics will build long-lasting relationships.
Case Study: Flint, Michigan, Water Crisis
Contaminated water, lead poisoning and Legionaries’ disease sounds like a crisis from another era, but it occurred in Flint, Michigan, starting in April 2014. Flint was started by a fur trader, but its modern heritage largely comes from its role as a leading manufacturer of cars.
General Motors (GM) was founded there in 1908. Economic depression hit the city in the 1980s in part due to GM closing several plants in the area. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, currently it has around 100,000 residents, and 41.6% of those residents live below the poverty line.
The city’s finances also suffered. In 2011, Flint’s finances were taken over by the state due to a $25 million deficit. In that same year, the Flint water service had a $9 million deficit. The water in the Flint River, which would now flow to the city of Flint had been known to be of poor quality since the 1970s.
Despite this information, in an effort to reduce costs, Flint government officials switched the city to using water from the Flint River instead of from nearby Detroit in 2014. Originally, the plan was to only use this setup temporarily until a new water system was built. Soon after the switch, residents starting complaining about the “color, taste and odor,” of the water and to also report rashes and concerns about bacteria. GM even stopped using the Flint municipal water due to it corroding car parts. In August and September 2014, city officials issued boil water advisories due to high levels of coliform bacteria that could be signs E. coli and other organisms were in the water supply. A class-action lawsuit stated the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) was not treating the water of the Flint River with an anti-corrosive agent, violating federal law.
Course of Action
In October 2014, Susan Bohm, a disease specialist in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MHHS) wrote colleagues in her agency to document a conversation with Liane Shekter Smith (fired in February 2016), the state’s top drinking water official, about problems with the water supply.
“What she did share with me was interesting – that there have been numerous complaints about the Flint water, that the governor’s office had been involved and that any announcement by public health about the quality of the water would certainly inflame the situation.”
Although Gov. Snyder’s staffers say they didn’t learn about lead exposure and Legionnaires’ diseases outbreaks from the Flint water system until March 2015, this email suggests they did in October 2014, which was before the governor’s re-election. However, MHHS spokeswoman, Jennifer Eisner states Bohm’s email was only speaking to issues such as odd color, strange taste, and disinfection issues not knowledge of Legionnaires’ disease and lead contamination in the water supply.
In a January 22, 2015 email, Mike Prysby, a district engineer with MDEQ’s drinking water division wrote to Stephen Bush, the district supervisor, “Appears certain state departments are concerned with Flint's WQ (water quality). I will return the call..." A year later, Bush was suspended without pay for his role in the crisis. Flint city officials sent residents a letter informing them the water they were now using could cause an increased risk of cancer over time.
The state found that the level of disinfectants in the water exceeded the Safe Drinking Water Act’s threshold. A few days after this finding was made public, the water authority offered to reconnect Flint to Lake Huron’s water supply waiving the $4 million fee. However, Flint city officials declined the offer stating water fees could raise to more than $12 million each year. It is interesting to note that state government emails released by the liberal group, Progress Michigan, found that while state officials were telling Flint residents not to worry about drinking their tap water, these same officials had a cooler with purified water to avoid drinking Flint tap water while at work in Flint’s state office.
The questions about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease continued. In a February 5, 2015 email to Howard Croft, then-director of Flint’s Department of Public Works, James Henry, a Genesee County environmental health supervisor wrote about the difficulties he had with gaining access to information about Flint’s water supply.
“The Genesee County Health Department has attempted to obtain specific information regarding the Flint water distribution system from your office since November 2014. Your office has not provided a return phone call or response to emails. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was sent electronically and mailed to your office on January 27, 2015, in attempt to obtain information. The response from your office on February 4, 2015, did not include any information that was requested. I am still hopeful that we can work collaboratively to protect the health of the community and resolve any issues with the Flint water supply.”
In March 2015, MDEQ Communications Director, Brad Wurfel, stated in an email to Harvey Hollin, the governor’s director of urban initiatives, and MDEQ director (at the time) Dan Wyatt, 40 cases of Legionnaire’s disease were reported in Genesee County since April 2014. Wurfel goes on to say that that number is more than what had been reported in the previous five years combined. Similarly, Laurel Garrison of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 27, 2015, wrote in an email to Genesee County health officials, “We are very concerned about this Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. It’s very large, one of the largest we know of in the past decade, and community-wide, and in our opinion and experience it needs a comprehensive investigation.” These emails seemed to demonstrate that local, state, and federal government officials knew about the outbreak many months before the governor’s office officially announced the outbreak in January 2016.
The situation in Flint looked bleak and the troubles with the water supply, transparency, and disclosure did not end here. In part two of the case, you will learn more about lead contamination and governmental agency involvement in the crisis.