As previously noted, a greater push for transparency helps a lot of people and organizations to do the right thing and progress in their industries. Although unfortunately, transparency isn’t always the best option. In 2004, a push for transparency about photos showing U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees resulted in the deaths of many Americans. In 2009, Obama was stuck between the choices of being transparent with additional photos or the safety of U.S. troops.
So at times when transparency isn’t an option, what better option is there? In the recent debate between the Apple Inc. and the FBI, Apple showed that translucency could be the more efficient strategy.
Where transparency is like a completely clear pane of glass that reveals the whole picture, translucency is when that glass is foggy and so the image is still there, and perceived, but not completely visible.
Dr. Robert I. Wakefield, APR, and Susan B. Walton, APR, in their 2010 Public Relations Journal publication “The Translucency Corollary: Why Full Transparency is Not Always the Most Ethical Approach” gave four important pieces of explanation to establishing a culture of transparency.
A commitment to communicate, but not to content
Translucency is a commitment to communication, but not an advanced commitment to what the message contains. This lets publics know that they will get the information that is most important and relevant to them. This process of translucency allows time to prepare a reliable response to questions and situations that are actionable, without the need to promise private information.
There is not a single thing any organization can say if there isn’t a foundation of trust. An organization proves credibility by prior action and good communication. Without that pre-established credibility, publics will not trust the translucency approach that gives perception, but not necessarily detail. The higher level of trust a company acquires, the more the publics will accept a lack of specific details because they believe the organization has their best interests at heart.
Communicate what the public needs to know
When a message or information being communicated might cause negative reactions or confusion, translucency is a great tactic. This is especially common when communicating scientific information or topics that require specific education to understand. Contrary to transparency, with translucency it isn’t necessary to give all the details about the studies done. Instead, tell people what they need to hear according to the conclusions found and only go into further detail if requested.
Recently there was a debate between Apple and the FBI over creating an encryption “backdoor,” an iPhone master key, which would be able to unlock any iPhone. While the FBI’s purpose was to prosecute one of the San Bernardino killers, Apple refused to comply. In a message to customers published on Apple’s website, CEO Tim Cook said, “For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data.” The letter itself briefly covered several different topics such as the need for encryption and the danger of creating a “backdoor,” but did not go into details that people did not need.
Have a communications plan
Finally, translucency is most effective when an organization already has in place a process and structure for bringing more light of information through the glass.
Make sure there are ways for publics to get more information if needed. The publication said to ask questions such as “Is the CEO accessible and communicative?” Has the company shared a clear vision?” And, “Is the organization precise (rather than vague) in its communications?”
Following the letter, Apple made it easy for consumers to communicate and provided them a page of answers to common questions consumers had asked. Through experimentation, find out what the right amount of information to share is. An organization should be consistent in its communication behaviors so that publics know what to expect.
Transparency is not bad, but is not always the best option. Translucency is a great communications process when transparency creates a situation of risk. Translucency focuses on the quality of the communication instead of the quantity of information given.
Transparency and translucency are not an exact science, so experiment a little. Find out what works best for your organization and the publics within its interests.
Karsten Kutterer is a public relations student at Brigham Young University. He is happily married to the girl of his dreams and is excited for his son to be born in June. He loves passing the hours away with his nose in a book, playing board games or eating his wife’s delicious cooking.