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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Transparency and PR....

Reading a post by friend Stephen got me thinking about the reformist preoccupation with "transparency" and its place on the pantheon of "good qualities" that all government agents and agencies are supposed to strive for.

Transparency has become an evaluative standard of good governance, and it has taken iconic form throughout the world. Legally it is manifest in the various Freedom of Information acts (FOIA) dotting the global landscape,and administratively it finds expression in ombudsman offices and other organizational forms designed to keep agency actions accessible and processes open to public view and scrutiny. And few NGOs have the attention grabbing clout of Transparency International when it releases its country by country ratings.

What Stephen draws attention to is the role PR plays in government, and it is clear that we seem conflicted over whether it is a good or bad thing. Historically, it is clear that those agencies we know the most and best work hard to achieve a positive image or impression -- and that some even use the services of PR professionals to do so.

The link between transparency and accountability is obvious but often unstated. By its very nature, transparency requires a form of account giving -- either through reports, assessments, the development of mechanisms for dealing with problems and complaints, etc. The irony is that all account giving -- whether determined by those who demand it (the principals) or supply it (the agents) -- requires actions that reduce transparency to some degree.

In that sense, "transparency" is itself a communications misnomer, for it implies that pure clarity of information -- the ability to obtain access without any distortions or obstacles -- is possible. There is nothing objectively transparent about real world information -- it is all filtered through some framing on either the sending or receiving end. Those who control the preparation, presentation or receipt and interpretation of information engaged in some form of distortion. That much is a given. The issue for the various actors involved -- demanders or suppliers -- is how to respond to the situation.

For some agents, so-called transparency is a tool to enhance one's situation -- to offset criticism and crises by letting the people you serve (or who pay the bills) know what you do and how you do it in a favorable light. J. Edgar Hoover was a master of this from his early years as head of the FBI until near the end of his life (he seems to have lost control of the "presentation" during his last years). From the outset he engaged in PR, and it would not be surprising to learn that he also worked with PR professionals (especially during the heydays of FBI-inspired movies and TV programs). One might even regard his PR operation as a model for turning the demand for transparency into an impression management tool....

But of course those reformers who advocate transparency would want to avoid agent-control of the information and image being presented, so they are likely to call for specification of the account giving. But even here it is extremely difficult to avoid driving the agent to the PR consultant, for all forms of account giving require the development of presentation tools -- and it would be a sign of incompetence for the agent not to attempt to make that presentation as positive (or at least minimize negativity) as possible.

All this requires further investigation - which I guess is what I do for a living. Thanks to Stephen and his post for the inspiration....

Sociable Geek
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