Monday, March 12

Talking Transparency: Fox News

On Friday, the Nevada Democratic Party backed out of a FOX News-sponsored presidential debate after Roger Ailes, president of FOX, made some remarks, jokingly comparing Democratic Senator Barack Obama to al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

As written up by the The Huffington Post the remarks prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Tom Collins, the head of the Nevada Democratic Party, to cancel the debate. The letter read:

"A month ago, the Nevada Democratic Party entered into a good faith agreement with FOX News to co-sponsor a presidential debate in August,'' Reid and Collins said in the letter. "This was done because the Nevada Democratic Party is reaching out to new voters and we strongly believe that a Democrat will not win Nevada unless we find new ways to talk to new people. To say the least, this was not a popular decision. But it is one that the Democratic Party stood by.''

"However, comments made last night by FOX News President Roger Ailes in reference to one of our presidential candidates went too far,'' the letter went on. "We cannot, as good Democrats, put our party in a position to defend such comments. In light of his comments, we have concluded that it is not possible to hold a Presidential debate that will focus on our candidates and are therefore canceling our August debate. We take no pleasure in this, but it is the only course of action.''

Politics aside, this living case study brushes up against the concept of transparency in business. Just how much is too much? For Ailes, his political leanings obviously have real life consequences, if nothing else, giving Democratic leaders the excuse they needed to cancel under pressure from the more than 265,000 people who signed a petition calling Fox "a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, not a legitimate news channel." At the same dinner where Ailes made the controversial remarks, he also offered a warning about a growing trend.

"Pressure groups are forcing candidates to conclude that the best strategy for journalists is divide and conquer, to only appear on those networks and venues that give them favorable coverage...This pressure must be resisted, as it has been in the past," Ailes said. "Any candidate for high office of either party who believes he can blacklist any news organization is making a terrible mistake."

While Ailes is right, it seems he was equally wrong by being, perhaps, too transparent in his remarks, reinforcing a growing belief that today's media, particularly broadcast media, is biased toward one party or another. Clearly, it seems over the last ten years, traditional media has shifted from reporting the news to setting an agenda to having an agenda.

In part, it is for this reason businesses are looking (or will be looking) for new ways to create more open and direct dialogue with their consumers by employing, among other vehicles, social media. The question that remains unanswered, however, is whether traditional company presidents and CEOs have the skill sets required to get the job done. In many cases, there is growing evidence that suggests they do not.

In their quest to be more transparent, presidents and CEOs tend to be either too tight or too loose with their lips. A few days ago (thanks for the tip Amitai Givertz ... your new "blog-enabled" Web site is looking up!), The Melcrum Blog highlighted an article in the Financial Times UK edition that reminds us of some recent CEO gaffes...

"I don't borrow on credit cards because it's too expensive." — Matt Barrett, CEO of Barclays.

"People say how can you sell this for such a low price. I say because it is total crap." — Gerard Ratner, CEO of Ratners

"Assets like [Sainsbury] don't come on the market very often. Your shareholders would think you were an idiot if you didn't consider it. Watch this space." — Stuart Rose from Marks & Spencer, uttered over a "glass of wine," which was followed by an 'official announcement' declaring that the board of Marks & Spencer had decided it did not intend to make an offer.

For the best CEO practitioners of transparency, the rewards of mastering this double-edged sword are pretty great. According to the International Association of Business Communicators, 72 percent of consumers say reputation influences their buying decisions, 80 percent of employees will accept less money to work with a company that has an excellent reputation, and 82 percent of consumers say reputation is the tie-breaker between equal choices.

Case in point, recently I entertained a relatively gruff recruiter who wanted to establish a "relationship" in case my career goals might change in a few years (probably not, but whatever). It didn't take long to deduce that she only wanted to fill one job (that wouldn't have been challenging for me) and rob my contacts to do it. Even more perplexing was her insistence that strategic communication had something to do with how big your media contact Rolodex is (what's a Rolodex nowadays, anyway?) I've decided against publicly chastising her ignorance out of respect to my friend who referred her, but it fits within the context of mastering transparency basics to remember:

• You are never off the record (you're being interviewed even when conducting an interview).
• You cannot buy it (creating a flog, making false promises, or shifting agendas midstream).
• You cannot fake transparency and hope to retain your reputation over time.
• How you react to a mistakes will have greater weight than the original blunder.

The bottom line is that corporate transparency is not all that different from recognizing that you are in the public all the time (even when you don't think you are). Some people are good at it. Some are not. For starters, however, you have to have a message that is aligned with your business objectives, sensitive to the audience you are communicating to, and not insensitive to other publics who are likely to hear what you said anyway.

For Ailes, whom I generally like, unless his objective was to have the debate canceled, he only considered one of these three elements. Sure, what he said might convey how he really feels, but it always helps to remember that being honest and overly opinionated are two different things.

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1 comments:

Rich on 3/12/07, 1:44 PM said...

Famous Last Words:

"Imagine if every political organization created litmus tests for news organizations before agreeing to appear on their programming. Republicans would have boycotted PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC, National Public Radio and The Associated Press decades ago." — The Las Vegas Review-Journal

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