7 rules for being transparent

While you might be tempted to bury a damaging story, your efforts can backfire, ruining your credibility and turning essential media contacts into enemies. Follow these rules.

Fostering transparency means being honest, open and forthcoming with journalists.

This, in turn, builds respect and goodwill in the short term. It also solidifies a strong bond of trust over the long run.

Don’t forget that withholding key information from reporters, or letting it out piecemeal, is never a good idea, and will only gives legs to a damaging story.

The result of trampling on transparency is a multi-day negative news cycle. Plus, PR pros will likely take the blame for any negative fallout, even if such a stupid strategy was mandated by on high.

No communicator wants to be forced into “damage control” mode due to lack of transparency. This only hurts the organization’s brand image and leads to a loss of accountability, consumer confidence and public trust.

Transparency involves going the extra mile in maximizing information dissemination and minimizing spin.

Empowering PR pros

Meaningful transparency will only succeed if and when PR pros are empowered by executive leadership.

In today’s fast changing mobile, digital and virtual media landscape, your job in PR requires seamless access to all necessary and relevant information (to the extent possible). Beyond access, you must also have advance approval to share certain kinds of information with journalists.

When a damaging news report starts spreading online, there’s simply no time to waste. Every minute lost in a crisis communications is another minute in which tens of thousands of people potentially consume negative news and pass it on through social media.

Talk to your boss about difficult media situations that might arise and agree on a response before bad news goes viral. If information is being withheld for bureaucratic reasons then PR pros need to ask why, because the company will be held accountable by journalists  anyway.

Cover-ups only make it worse

Many leaders have learned the hard way that the cover-up is worse than the crime.

This adage was made famous by the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. The Washington Post’s persistent investigative reporting exposed the existence of the Watergate tapes, which Nixon refused to release and allegedly tried to destroy.

The president’s attempt to keep the tapes a secret and subvert the legal system to avoid scrutiny eventually brought public condemnation and the Nixon resigned.

The story is a cautionary tale for PR pros: Covering up misdeeds can be just as damaging to your public image as the release of unflattering reports.

Consequently, before you reject a reporter’s legitimate request for information, follow these rules first:

1. Don’t withhold information unless it’s absolutely necessary for legal reasons.

2. Don’t make a reporter file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request if you are able to provide information or data without one.

3. Don’t ever lie to the media because trust is difficult, if not impossible, to regain.

4. If you’re wrong about the facts or can’t immediately answer a question, admit it up front and then follow-up quickly with accurate info.

5. If you cannot fulfill a media request on deadline, explain why. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver.’

6. If you can’t speak “on the record” for name attribution, then suggest other credible external sources for journalists to contact.

7. If you must get negative information out, do it quickly and all at once, if possible, to avoid a prolonged negative news cycle.

Transparency is what builds or repairs public trust, accountability and enhances a company’s brand image. Stonewalling reporters will only make a bad news story worse.

David B. Grinberg is a strategic communications consultant, freelance writer and former federal government spokesman based in the Washington, D.C. area.You can also find him on Twitter, LinkedIn and Medium.

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