Transparency through the Internet and the rapid evolution of social media have provided unprecedented opportunities for two-way communication, interactivity and engagement. Transparency of governments, civil society organizations and corporations helps to ensure these organizations’ authenticity, thereby enhancing trust.
Increased transparency ensures that democratic governments are more accountable to their citizens, civil society organizations are more visible in the performance of their missions and corporations are more socially responsible. However, in today’s social, political, economic and cultural environments that are made increasingly transparent through the Internet and social media, pseudo-transparency also exists as invisible social actors exploit the vulnerabilities of this transparency.
Socially, involuntary and/or unknown transparency results in pseudo-transparency that creates inauthenticity that begets mistrust. The workplace provides many examples, e.g., employers who require their employees to "like" their organizations on Facebook, an apparently voluntary communication to these employees’ friends and followers.
Not uncommon is potential employers’ demand for the passwords of those seeking employment to review the content of their social media sites. Workers’ smartphones and tablets can become pseudo-transparent 24/7 electronic monitors that allow involuntary and/or unknown transparency.
Communication technology that ostensibly is designed to make life easier and freer may become an invasive tool to manipulate and to control people more effectively. Politically, the involuntarily loss of political power and influence to unseen social actors who can surreptitiously manipulate information results in pseudo-transparency.
Immediate, inexpensive and incendiary information that may not be trustworthy and authentic can be uploaded and posted with virtual anonymity. Economically, pseudo-transparent influences contribute to people’s financial enslavement to communication technologies that become essential for their participation in society. Certainly, the bread-and-circuses "time-suck" of the Internet and the addiction of its social media have gotten the attention of employers concerned about employee productivity as well as that of parents who are concerned about their children’s education.
Although marketing campaigns for communication technology and services may be transparent, pseudo-transparency may exist in decision-making to determine the adoption of new communication technologies, e.g., by educational institutions where students are taught to use specific communication technologies and by information technology (IT) services that choose what technologies they will and will not "support."
As a result, consumers may not be integrating technology into their lives as much as they are integrating their lives into communication technology that is preferred by pseudo-transparent social actors. Cultural changes are likewise influenced, if not imposed, by pseudo-transparent social actors.
It behooves public relations practitioners to encourage transparency in their organizations and to resist pseudo-transparency. Nevertheless, transparency remains insufficient as a public relations goal, particularly in an environment in which transparency exists within a corrupted environment of pervasive pseudo-transparency.
Rather, transparency is of value to an organization’s public relations only to the extent that it creates authenticity and trust. Authenticity is only possible through transparency. The practitioners must ask whether his or her organization acts without a hidden agenda (transparency) and whether that organization’s performance is consistent with its communication about this performance (authenticity). Importantly, authenticity cannot exist within an environment of pseudo-transparency.
However, the ultimate public relations goal of an organization must be trust, which is confident belief in the authenticity of an organization. Trust can only exist when it is predicated on authenticity, which in turn can only exist through transparency.
Of course, trust must be deserved; neither can it be violated, or else that trust will be lost. Many organizations have become pro-actively transparent in response to public demand for truthful information and in response to the ready availability of alternative access to information. These organizations have used transparency to assure their publics of their authenticity. And it is this authenticity that creates trust.
A path to mistrust
In contrast, pseudo-transparency that exploits transparency creates inauthenticity that begets mistrust. Pseudo-transparency that exploits political influence in a democracy surreptitiously manipulates information on which citizens depend, creating inauthenticity and mistrust.
People have become economically enslaved to the considerable financial costs of mandated new communication technologies that have become requisite to living their lives in modern society, if not addicting, in part because of inauthentic pseudo-transparent influences that invite mistrust. Pseudo-transparent influences on cultural values may result in cultural changes that are deleterious to organizations’ publics as well as to society-at-large.
In an age of increasing transparency, pseudo-transparency nevertheless flourishes. Public relations practitioners must strive for transparency of their organizations. However, transparency only has value to the extent that it creates authenticity, which is only possible through transparency. But public relations’ ultimate goal must be trust, which is only possible through authenticity. This linear progression can be expressed as such:
Transparency > authenticity > trust
Pseudo-transparency > inauthenticity > mistrust
Public relations practitioners in today’s transparent age must recognize the linear progression of transparency, authenticity and trust, the last of which must be the public relations goal of governments, civil society organizations and corporations.
Based on the paper:
Vujnovic, M. & Kruckeberg, D. (2014, March). A PR "meta-strategy" based on an examination of "transparency," "Pseudo-Transparency," "Authenticity" and "Trust". Paper presented at The 17th Annual International Public Relations Research Conference, Miami, FL.
Dean Kruckeberg, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is co-author of This Is PR: The Realities of Public Relations and of Public Relations and Community: A Reconstructed Theory. He is the author and co-author of many book chapters and journal articles about international public relations ethics and about the ramifications of evolving communication technology for public relations practice.
Marina Vujnovic, Ph.D., is the author of Forging the Bubikopf Nation: Journalism, Gender and Modernity in Interwar Yugoslavia and co-author of Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates at Online Newspapers and is the author of many book chapters and articles in scholarly journals. Her research interests focus on international communication and global flow of information, explorations of the historical, political-economic and cultural impact on media and class, gender and ethnicity.