Sometimes on the tennis or volleyball court, I’ll get a shooting pain in my left knee that forces me to stop and bandage up. When my opponents ask what’s wrong, I always give the same reply: “Old soccer injury.”
That answer is 100% accurate – even if it’s not 100% complete. I did tear my ligaments playing soccer and spent weeks hobbling around on crutches. What I don’t normally tell people is exactly how it happened.
I was in the 6th grade, playing fullback, while my friend Todd was in the goal. My team was dominating, so there was very little action at our end of the field, and Todd and I had plenty of time to discuss our favorite episode of “Batman.”
Suddenly one of my teammates yelled “Shot! Shot!” From the corner of my eye, I saw the incoming ball, so I sprinted full-speed in the same direction – and ran smack into the corner of the aluminum goalpost.
Clearly, the full story is much less sexy than the condensed version.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about full disclosure as I watch the unfolding scandal over phone hacking in the U.K. The news media are supposed to be the champions of truth, yet some reporters and editors were clearly telling the “sexy” stories that sold newspapers while withholding one very important fact – that they had obtained their information illegally.
What’s the result of all this?
Polls show that Britons no longer trust their news media, politicians or even Scotland Yard. Pundits say this crisis of confidence will have long-lasting repercussions for British society, much like the Watergate scandal in the U.S.
Even if you’re not running a $13 billion media empire like Rupert Murdoch, every leader at some point will wrestle with the question of how much information to reveal – and when.
There’s no easy, off-the-shelf solution to this problem. We’re told that transparency is vital to effective leadership, but there’s definitely such a thing as too much information.
Take Bob Parsons, for instance. The billionaire founder of GoDaddy.com is a popular blogger who chronicles his personal passions in video episodes that are famed for their high production values (and deep cleavage). But earlier this year, one of those videos featured graphic footage from Parsons’ annual elephant hunt in Africa, and thousands of outraged customers stampeded to cancel their Go Daddy accounts.
Share too much information, and your customers desert you. Share too little, and you create an international scandal. It’s a tricky thing, trying to be appropriately transparent in the digital age.
My marketing practice is centered on telling stories that build brands, so this is something I wrestle with all the time. I don’t have any easy answers, but I do think a series of questions can help to clarify your thinking in most situations:
- Is there a legal issue? If laws were broken by someone in your organization, then you have to tell the proper authorities – period. Just cutting your ties to that person won’t get you off the hook.
- Is there an ethical issue? Not to sound like a total relativist, but your answer could well vary according to the situation. In most cases, you’ll need to ask at least one additional question.
- What would I say if I got “outed”? If you would flounder for an excuse or a justification, then your reticence probably indicates a cover-up, and you’re better off taking control by framing the story on your own terms. But if, in good conscience, you could simply answer, “It was none of your business,” then you’re better off keeping it to yourself in the first place. (Elephant hunters, take note.)
In the case of illegal activities, there’s no doubt about whom you must tell, or when. But in almost every other situation, your revelations can be more strategic. Determine what kind of impact you hope to make, then pick your audience, pick your moment and pick your words accordingly.
That’s exactly what I do with my “soccer injury” story. It’s not appropriate halfway through a tennis match, because it gives my opponent a weakness that he can exploit. But there are plenty of other situations where the story works to my advantage, like when I need to establish empathy or show a flash of humility.
Oh, and for the sake of full transparency, I should also say that it’s not a bad story when you’re trying to hook readers for a blog post.
– Robert Jones is a small-business journalist with 20 years’ experience writing for outlets such as Entrepreneur, AllBusiness.com and SmartBrief. As a copywriter and content marketer, he helps companies create more compelling stories around their brands. Robert’s tips on marketing and communication can be found at his PenPoint Group blog.