The Truth About Transparency

By Mike Murphy, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs 

We hear a lot about transparency these days. If you are over 50, your mind may jump to those floppy plastic sheets that your high school math teacher used to project equations on the wall.  Those went the way of the fax machine.

Transparency in today’s vernacular is somewhat synonymous with “laying everything on the table.” But transparency is NOT the same as truthfulness.

Before you decide whether to be completely transparent with information, you must first ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Is your client a government entity?
  2. Is your client a publicly held company?
  3. Does your client have a legal right to privacy?

If your answer to either Question 1 or 2 is “yes,” then the content and the timing of releasing information is governed by several state and federal laws and regulations, including the Freedom of Information Act and SEC regulations. You should check with an attorney familiar with these laws before releasing or withholding information.

For most clients, you also should answer “yes’’ to Question 3. This gives you a lot more leeway and leads to a fourth question:  What is in your client’s best interests?

Remember, you serve your client — not your buddies in the media, not your friend the local politician, and certainly not your friend who works for your client’s competitor.

The general rules are:

  • Always be truthful. More people go to jail for telling lies than for committing the crime that is at the base of the lie.
  • Be transparent with information that is truthful AND serves your client’s interests, whether that is selling a product, advancing a cause, or protecting a reputation.

Those rules will serve you well, though it is impossible in this short blog to consider all the permutations of circumstances that you could face in representing your client.

Once you decide to share client information, you must decide the best forum in which to share.  Rarely is a news conference the answer. Clients hate them (unless they are politicians) because they might be exposed to unanticipated or unwanted questions. The news media hate them too (they are boring and rarely produce real news). The only thing good to be said about news conferences is that they efficiently tell your client’s story to many reporters in a compressed time frame.

Far better, in most cases, is to choose a reporter who already is knowledgeable about the subject and is known to be fair and ethical.  Brief him/her on the story, and offer your client for an interview.  The resulting story will be the foundational story for the rest of the media.  You will have better control of the message while serving your client’s interests.

So, be Truthful.  But not unnecessarily Transparent.