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Sometimes, Transparency – and Ignorance – Sell

Sometimes, being a content expert means asking the right questions, but not having all the answers (at least at first)

Radical transparency: it’s not a Buzzfeed quiz, but a philosophy of client service. Essentially, it’s a skill that blends honesty about what you know and what you don’t, with a bit of humility and a lot of collaboration with clients. The end result: everyone gets smarter together.
Gini Dietrich, author of “Spin Sucks” and a content and public relations consultant based in Chicago, is a big proponent of this point of view. Here’s why.

What’s scary about transparency?

Part of it is that, for so long, we’ve had one-way conversations with customers so our messages were canned and we all said the same things inside an organization. You hired a communications firm or professional to make sure your messaging was on target and relevant. Today, the conversations have turned to two-way and customers can (and will) say anything they like to you. This means you—or someone you work with—could be caught off-guard and say something he or she probably shouldn’t.
That’s why most leaders are afraid of transparency. But let me give you a really good example. Love him or hate him, there is a great video of President and Mrs. Obama reading Where the Wild Things Are. They enact the story to the kids and it’s very real and very transparent. He still leads this country and there are plenty of things he can’t let us in on, but the human side shows us he, just like the rest of us, puts his pants on one leg at a time. If POTUS can do this, so can every other leader.

Why is transparency underestimated – indeed, if it is estimated at all – in the world of content marketing and corporate reputation building?

It’s a buzzword that most marketers have come to hate so it’s underestimated for that reason. But it’s also underestimated with leaders because they believe they should hold their cards close to their vests. They believe business and personal should be separate. They believe no one cares what they had for lunch…and they certainly don’t care what you had for lunch. But transparency is deeper than that. Buffer [a social media measurement firm] is transparent with their salaries. Is that the right thing for every business? Probably not, but you can see there are different ways to look at it. You can certainly be transparent without giving away everything.

Where does transparency go off the rails – i.e., where do companies intend to be transparent but then pull the plug?

They get scared. Perhaps there is a negative comment or some criticism. Or perhaps it’s just fear of the unknown. But the reason it would go off the rails is always fear. I’ll tell you a quick story. In 2009, I wrote a blog post called Arment Dietrich is No Longer a PR Firm. I wrote it and then sat on it for a few days because I was scared to hit publish. What if current clients saw it and fired us? What if the referrals dried up? What if this decision led to our demise? What if the industry made fun of us? I was so scared of the “what ifs” that I almost didn’t publish it. But I did…and to this day, it’s still one of our more popular blog posts. It was transparent. It was raw. And it worked.

What do companies typically assume – rightly and wrongly – about how to build trust with key audiences through content marketing?

This is a loaded question! For some reason, they think content marketing, social media, communicating via the web is a golden ticket…a magic bullet. They forget that building trust with human beings takes time. Arguably, it takes even more time when you’re doing it online. Yes, there are lots and lots of advantages to doing it this way, but it’s not a magic bullet. You cannot build trust with human beings overnight. No amount of great content will do that.

What do they need to know?

There are plenty of examples of companies that are transparent. I really love what Zappos is doing with holacracy [a workplace organizational philosophy that asks everyone to be self-directed]. No one knows if it will work, and about a year in, people are very unhappy and they’ve lost their standing as a “best place to work.” But Tony Hseih speaks to the pros and cons of the idea and what’s happening internally. He also knows it takes more than a year to change a culture and he’s willing to invest the time…and the criticism. He’s about as transparent as you can get and he’s lauded for it.

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