Transparency is a word that comes up a lot these days. From business ethics to transparency in government, the notion that open, honest communication is key to building trusting relationships, reputation and performance is not new. What is new, however, is how much transparency has come under fire in our so-called “post-truth” era.

We see this playing out in virtually all facets of marketing, PR and advertising. The rise of social media in the digital age has created new sources for news, opinion, endorsements and ads. Yet, the line between fact and fiction has become blurred or, perhaps more accurately, chalk.

Although media hoaxes and slanted stories have a long history in the print media, the speed at which negative opinions or outright false stories can be shared on the internet has made fake news a 21st century phenomenon. On the plus side, the democratization of journalism on the internet makes anyone a potential “reporter.” But in this Brave New World, journalistic standards of excellence promising accuracy, impartiality, fairness and accountability don’t always exist. They don’t seem to matter so much anymore, it appears, since Pew Research reported in 2016 that 62% of adults now get their news through social media.

Fake It Til You Make It

Online technology publisher New Atlas covered this disturbing trend in a two-part series this month examining the problem of fake news and how to solve it. One example they cited reveals with astounding clarity the blind faith many social media users put in the stories they share. In June of last year, a blog post was published by the satirical news site, the Science Post (think of The Onion, but this site focuses on health and science news) featuring a block of “lorem ipsum” text with this headline: “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.”

Nearly 46,000 people shared the post. Many took the headline at face value without reading the content, and several of those who did venture into the text mistakenly thought it was written in Latin. Even though they didn’t understand it, they shared it anyway.

This has become big business for cyber criminals, many who create fake news sites and use malvertising (fake ads often served up on authentic websites and search engines like Google and Yahoo) to get readers to click on a bad link and gain access to their personal account information for data theft.

Says New Atlas, we’re all just in it for the clicks, likes, follows, fans and other metrics tracked to prove the value of online marketing (or our own self-worth, depending on how seriously one takes online connections). This explains why most major brands have gone digital, sometimes at the expense of a solid strategic marketing or brand communications strategy.

The ability to easily and more efficiently target, engage and mobilize audiences, as well as measure digital advertising effectiveness, are advantages online marketing has versus traditional marketing and PR tactics. No doubt the variety and usefulness of web and digital analytics has expanded over time, but how this works and what it all means is mystifying to most outside of elite digital circles. So, perhaps the analytics experts have their own transparency problem.

“Most people see analytics as some kind of bipolar disorder, a constant fight to find the balance between two apparently unsolvable personalities: marketing and IT,” says digital analytics consultant Stephane Hamel. Rapid growth in this sector has put many issues (such as data privacy) front and center, but the industry has been slow to set clear ethical standards. Big Data technology exists, the data is out there and readily available, and someone will pay for it, Hamel says, so where the line between privacy and profit gets drawn is often flexible.

In fact, it is not. Information that is “collected without your knowledge, without your consent and without the ability to review the collected data” is illegal. But then again, that’s what all those user agreements are all about.

Trust, But Verify

Technology and automation are transforming the online marketing world in more ways, giving rise to services such as programmatic advertising, which uses software and algorithms to purchase online advertising versus the traditional RFP process once favored by media buyers. These services are under scrutiny for a lack of transparency in buying practices, fee structures and methodology.

A recent story reported from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) annual meeting in Florida had P&G’s Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard ─ who controls the brand’s $7 billion ad spend ─ putting the industry on notice. Here’s what he said: “P&G and other advertisers are wasting way too much time and money on a media supply chain with poor standards adoption, too many players grading their own homework, too many hidden touches and too many holes to allow criminals to rip us off (a reference to cybersecurity).” In his keynote address, Pritchard described the media supply chain for placing digital ads as “murky at best and fraudulent at worst.”

Tough talk from one of the world’s largest and most respected consumer brands! P&G also announced it is undertaking an in-depth review of all its media buying contracts this year to ensure the company is being billed fairly and the right metrics are in place for each media platform it utilizes.

“At P&G, we spend enormous amounts of time trying to understand, analyze and explain the differences between viewability standards for each platform,” Pritchard said. “We’d rather spend time working on better advertising. The human mind can register an image into memory in 0.25 seconds. Regardless, it doesn’t matter enough to warrant the complexity and the tremendous resources spent to deal with the differences.”

To combat this issue, the IAB has joined forces with the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) to form the Trustworthy Accountability Group or TAG. In addition to promoting transparency, TAG is working with its members to eliminate fraudulent online traffic, combat malware and fight internet piracy.

Who Do You Trust?

Building trust and transparency has long been the purview of the PR profession (full disclosure: I am a PR hack). That doesn’t mean PR folks don’t have their own transparency problem.

Few outside of our ilk truly understand the vast communications roles we play (typically behind the scenes) at organizations of all types and sizes. Beyond the traditional publicity role, we spearhead social responsibility programs supporting community centered business leadership putting societal interests first. We develop crisis communications strategies as defenders of the brand. Some see us as “spin doctors,” with our job to manipulate the way people think. Others see us as a barrier between journalists and clients rather than a facilitator. Some of us may be, but most of us are not.

Rooted in the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant, the concept of transparency argues that integrity of action is inextricably tied to human dignity. We are bound by duty to act in ways that respect an individual’s rational capacity and their free will to exercise that rationality. Truth is important not just because lying and deception result in bad things, but because it demonstrates respect for everyone with whom we communicate.

From this basis, transparency has grown into an ideal that all institutions can adopt for the betterment of society. Social responsibility programs take this even further, making ethical decision making a duty of every individual and organization to maintain the right balance between the economy, its ecosystems and institutional interests. Bottom line: we’re all in this together, so let’s make it work for all of us.

Syrian refugee Anas Modamani, shown here taking a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is suing Facebook to delete all fake news stories about terrorist activity featuring his image.

Trends in fake news and the lack of objectivity in some news reporting have made many question the credibility of media sources. A recent example has Syrian refugee Anas Modamani suing Facebook after a selfie he took with German Chancellor Angela Merkel went viral.

According to this account from CNN, the problems began when the photo started appearing in stories and Facebook posts about terror attacks such as the Brussels bombings and the Christmas market attack in Berlin. Not only was the photo shared more than 200,000 times in connection to the Brussels attacks, false reports spread all over Facebook that Modamani was behind the Berlin market attack, CNN said. Modamani is seeking an injunction in a German court that would require Facebook to stop the selfie from being used in fake news posts. He is also asking for all existing fake news posts using the image to be deleted, according to his lawyer.

Even spokespeople are being called to the mat for not making truth the foundation for all effective communication. After President Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternative facts” in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) issued a statement which says, in part:

“By being truthful, we build and maintain trust with the media and our customers, clients and employees. As professional communicators, we take very seriously our responsibility to communicate with honesty and accuracy. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts.”

In business, politics, media, and the non-profit world, trust in these institutions has fallen to new lows, according to a new global survey conducted by the leading independent PR firm, Edelman Worldwide. In its “2017 Edelman Trust Barometer,” the majority of respondents have concluded the system isn’t working for them, believing it is unfair and expressing little hope for the future. Edelman describes this as a “trust crisis,” which will require new models for organizations putting people and societal interests first.

There is a silver lining, though, if we all agree to commit to greater transparency. Whether we own or work for a business, hospital, non-profit, educational institution or government office, we can all be better at telling the truth. The institutions we work for can help us get there by carefully defining their values and culture, modeling the right behaviors, and leading with purpose.

Where to begin? Know what your business stands for (and doesn’t). Cultivate a trusting environment for employees. Determine strategies for leaders and employees to live your values by engaging with community members in meaningful ways that make a difference. Make sure your reputation strategy aligns with your business goals.

Truth is hard. Transparency is harder. Yet even small and mid-size companies can make transparency more than an aspiration, but a cornerstone of good citizenship wherever they do business. Welcome to today’s reputation economy.

The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my current or former employers, my friends and colleagues, anyone I may have met in the past or may meet in the future.

About Mary Brophy

Mary has held leadership positions at the world’s largest independent PR agency, Edelman Worldwide, Cramer-Krasselt, Jacobson Rost and other leading agencies. Her background includes advising CEO-level executives on a variety of crisis communications and reputational issues.