Dispatches from the authenticity and transparency department: How much transparency is too much?

by | Jun 22, 2023 | Marketing, Public Relations

“A little truth is good. A lot is even better,” trumpeter Doc Severinsen told a sold-out audience before beginning the second half of a concert at the Kennedy Center several years ago.

After that, Severinsen, then in his 80s, he’s 95 now, admitted he was thrown from a very large horse recently. He landed squarely on his chops.

As such, Severinsen preferred postponing the concert. Yet it was a full house. The Kennedy Center urged him to reconsider. The show must go on.

So, Severinsen was on stage, though he apologized for not sounding his best. With that admission, the audience cheered loudly for what PR pros today call transparency and authenticity.

If transparency and authenticity aren’t the most mentioned words in PR trade publications and during presentations at industry conferences, they’re near the top.

For example, during a crisis we’re told to be as transparent and authentic as possible in communication. The coverup is worse than the crime, right?

A constant struggle

Yet in all sorts of communication, PR pros grapple with how much transparency and authenticity is enough. As such, almost daily they test Severinsen’s assertion that if some honesty is good, a lot is better.

Certainly, someone at Church & Dwight (C&D) believes an extra heaping of transparency is good, at least sometimes. For example, one of the company’s top executives recently forfeited $200,000 in stock after deleting several texts.  

When potential legal issues arise it’s normal that companies order some executives to preserve texts and emails. Barry Bruno, C&D’s CMO and U.S. consumer president, deleted some texts, the company disclosed last month.

It’s required that companies disclose that they’ve clawed back money from an employee. Yet C&D could have waited until its year-end proxy statement. In addition, the company said it believes Bruno’s deleted texts are not legally “material.”

Still, it disclosed the claw back in May, which impressed Robin Ferracone, founder, Farient Advisors, a compensation consultancy. 

“They’ve been very explicit here,” Ferracone told the Wall St Journal, adding, “I commend this company for [its] transparency.”

Having a reputation for transparency never hurts. It might help C&D, which owns the Arm & Hammer brand, among others. Indeed, C&D is facing a greenwashing suit. The suit alleges C&D’s claims that Clean Burst is environmentally friendly are false and that it contains a human carcinogen.

Is excess transparency good?

We wonder, is excess transparency always good? Not in our personal lives.
For instance, do you feel better when the dentist admits she’s in a messy divorce as you’re prepped for a root canal? Want the Uber driver disclosing he’s barely slept in weeks as you step into his car?

Still, authenticity and transparency remain vital in business communication.

For example, today’s (June 21) Wall St Journal reports about spats between founders of huge hedge fund Two Sigma. John Overdeck and David Siegel built the $60 billion firm from scratch 22 years ago, yet they’re fighting now. Their disagreements are so bad the two decided disclosure in an SEC filing was warranted.

Such transparency is “virtually unprecedented in the investment world,” the paper’s Juliet Chung and Gregory Zuckerman write. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Jamie Nash, a lawyer at hedge fund specialist Kleinberg Kaplan, tells them. “Disagreements among founders aren’t uncommon, but I’ve never heard of a disclosure like this.”

Transparency and abuse

And when employers make a mockery of authenticity and transparency, they should be held accountable.

Take restaurateur Che Garibaldi. He offered staff soul-cleansing on the clock. Garibaldi hired a priest who’d hear employee confessions during work hours at two Taqueria Garibaldi locations in CA. He was especially interested in the sins of coming in late, pilfering, or having “bad intentions” toward Mr. Garibaldi.

Obviously, this is abuse. In fact, federal officials called it “the most shameless” act of corruption an employer has taken against staff.

And add one more: the hired clergy was bogus. The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento confirmed the priest wasn’t theirs and doesn’t know who it is.

Fortunately, this shameless case has a happy ending. A federal court that uncovered the false confession scam also found Garibaldi and 3 partners guilty of cheating workers of overtime Tuesday (June 20).

Garibaldi reached an agreement where he’ll pay 35 staff $140,000 in back wages and damages. It doesn’t seem nearly enough. 

Seth Arenstein
Seth Arenstein is a freelance writer and former editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Twitter; LinkedIn.


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