Transparency, accountability and trust are big themes for communicators. It's something that should be at the core of everything every communicator does, particularly in government and public safety communication.
Put simply, transparency is the basis for trust between an organization and its stakeholders. Being transparent means being honest and open when communicating with people about matters related to the organization.
One of the cornerstones of American democracy is the public’s right to access information about the decisions, policies, and actions undertaken by all levels of government. This access is critical for a free press, an informed body of voters, and an understanding of which policies do and don’t work.
It’s not just about knowing about where taxpayer money is being spent, it’s about knowing - and believing - that decisions are made in the best interest of those that services are there for.
Federal and state transparency laws, for example, serve an essential role in the ability of journalists and researchers to inspect the workings of government and inform the public. These laws also allow access to data and records that help voters decide whether to keep, amend, or eliminate policies and bureaucratic structures based on their real-world performance.
It’s all about trust
To be trusted by the public, there needs to be consistent and meaningful accountability and transparency. A PIO has a responsibility to ensure that when an organization is being transparent that there is appropriate contextualization of information so that it addresses potential fear (such as in the release of crime figures) or concerns (that figures showing significant spending are given reason).
As a PIO, using plain language that does not use technical jargon ensures that anything is easy to understand - another part of being transparent.
When it comes to law enforcement agencies, transparency is particularly important because the agencies exercise so much discretionary power and require significant trust from the public.
If police officers are engaging in misconduct or failing to protect civilians from violence, we must be able to discover it and determine how to improve policing. Moreover, in order to ensure that all members of the public receive equal protection, law enforcement agencies must be accountable for actions and policies that have disproportionately negative effects on certain communities.
Internal and external communications
A big part of promoting transparency is ensuring clear communication between all departments internally. The line between external and internal communication grows ever stretched with significant shifts in the way people communicate and it’s not authentic or legitimate to claim externally to be transparent when you have barriers and blockages internally. By addressing silos and poor communication internally, it will be easier to build trust with staff and citizens alike.
Make it easy to get hold of information
Being accessible in every area is key It’s not enough to put things on a website and claim to be transparent. It has to be a website that is easy to navigate, complies with DDA regulations and is regularly updated. Burying a PDF or excel download on a page eight clicks in is not acceptable.
Equally, there must always be information available on all platforms and to all people - especially when there are those who do not have access to the internet. How easy is it for them to get the information they need about your organization? Always ensure your policies, minutes and decisions are easy to access and make everything available before anyone has to ask for it
Transparency and the media
There are times when, for legal reasons, information simply cannot be shared with the media. This is made a lot easier when, as communicators, we have built good relationships with the media and we are clear about the reasons behind what we do.
It’s important to consider if you are withholding information from the media when you don't really need to. It could be a habit, workplace culture or simply something that you’ve always done and never questioned.
Being forthcoming with information before being asked can be a useful way to approach media relations as it will often reduce the number of inquiries and calls you receive and it will also build trust with the media.
Additionally, information reduces the vacuum that gives oxygen to rumor and misinformation. Consider creating a full FAQ (frequently asked questions) and media resource center for your organization. Read more here about how to set up an FAQ.
There’s nothing wrong with saying you can’t share information as long as you are clear and honest about why you can’t share that information.
Meaningful transparency will only succeed if and when communicators are empowered from the top-down by leadership. There has to be trust in the process and strategy behind all communications in an organization and this absolutely starts with empowering communicators at all levels.