Thomas Friedman on the Value of Transparency Online

New York Times Foreign Affairs columnist Tom Friedman wrote yesterday about an activist group that convinced a major energy company to adopt a more environmentally friendly business strategy at a time when people have unprecedented access to information because anyone can upload anything to the internet where everyone everywhere can see it.

I spoke about this yesterday at the Advanced PR Tech Conference in Chicago, where I gave the opening keynote on digital marketing.

60 Minutes, the highest-rated news program, averages 8 to 9 million weekly viewers. But the Saddam execution cell phone video has been viewed over 15 million times. And to me, this is another example of how the internet is compelling greater transparency.

You can’t tell people you’ve successfully installed the underpinnings of democracy in a country war-torn by sectarian violence because people have camera phones, and whether you've got Karl Rove or Frank Lutz, all they have to do is upload a video of Saddam Hussein’s execution. If it looks like a hooligan lynch mob instead of the rule of law, it doesn’t matter how loud you shout because they’re going to know you’re a faker, and they’re not going to trust you anymore.

Personal publishing tools like blogs and podcasts are out there. So if you don’t deliver on your message, they’re going to cry foul, and it’s going to tarnish your reputation.

You can’t just cook up some sales pitch. You can’t just say you’ve got the most fantastic product in the world.

Buy our product. It can’t just be talk. You have to be honest.

People have unprecedented access to information.

Companies and brands are being judged now on a lot of levels. So now you need to think about getting your message directly to your constituents to build trust and deliver on your promises.

It is a way to tell and show people why they should pay attention to what you offer.

So now that you’re no longer dependent on the mainstream media to reach your target audience, the question shifts from what kind of gimmicky ad campaign can we come up with to how can we produce media that will be compelling, useful, and valuable?

How can we give them something that they can’t get anywhere else?

Here's what Friedman has to say about transparency in his column:

The Internet age is an age of transparency, when more people than ever can see right into your business and judge you by your deeds, not words. TXU could not manage its reputation by just hiring a P.R. firm and issuing a statement — because, thanks to the Internet, too many little people could talk back or shape TXU’s image on a global basis through the Web, for free.

“The reputations of companies are going to be less determined by the
quality of their P.R. people and more by their actual actions — and that
empowers more of an honest debate on the merits,” said Mr. Krupp, adding, “It’s just harder to keep bad environmental news secret and expect the public to sit on its hands in the Internet era.”

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