Aug 2 2007

A Model for Transparency

A Model for Transparency

Rob Kalin from Etsy (a marketplace for handmade goods) wrote an outstanding blog post today that Fred describes as a transparent window into what makes the company tick.

I’d like to riff off of two themes from the post.

First, the post itself and the fact that Rob, as CEO of the business, is comfortable with this degree of transparency and openness in his public writing.

I still think that far few CEOs blog today.  There is probably no better window into the way a company works or the way a management team thinks than open and honest blogging.  One member of our team at Return Path described my blogging once as “getting a peek inside my brain.”  The handful of CEOs that I’ve spoken to about why they don’t blog have all had a consistent set of responses.  They’re too busy.  They don’t know how.  They want to delegate it to Marketing but someone told them they can’t.  They’re concerned about what “legal” will say.  They’re public and are worried about running afoul of SEC communication rules (perhaps Whole Foods’ CEO notwithstanding).

I’m not sure I buy any of that.  CEOs who see the value of blogging will find a way to have the time and courage to do it.  And any blogger is entitled to say some things and not say others, as competitive needs or regulations (or common sense!) dictate.

But today’s reality is that running a successful company means spending more time communicating to all constituents — both internal and external.  And with the democratization of information on the Internet, it’s even more important to be accurate, open, honest, and consistent in that communication.  Blogging is an easy and powerful way of accomplishing that end.  Between my personal blog here and Return Path’s blog, I have a reach of something like 25,000 people when I write something.  Talk about a platform for influence in my company and industry.  So while CEOs don’t have to blog…in the end the CEO who doesn’t blog will find him or herself (and his or her company) at a competitive disadvantage versus those who do.

One important note on this as well is that the willingness of a CEO to blog seems to vary inversely with the size of the company.  The bigger the company, the more risk-averse the CEO seems to be.  That’s not surprising.

Second, Rob’s point around the company’s challenge with communications:

Having a consistent message vs. letting humans be human…large corporations try to sanitize all their outgoing messages for the sake of keeping face…I want Etsy to stay human. This means allowing each person’s voice to be heard, even if it’s squeaky or loud or soft. I will not put a glossy layer of PR over what we do. If we trip, let us learn from it instead of trying to hide it; when we leap, let’s show others how to leap.

Rob’s right, this is a tough one.  And I think in the end it comes back to the market again.  Just as CEOs who don’t blog will ultimately find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, companies that complete whitewash all their messaging will also find themselves at a competitive disadvantage because the companies’ personalities won’t come through as strongly, and the company’s message won’t seem as genuine.  And to the same point as above, the more the Internet takes over communications and information, the more critical it is that companies are open and honest and transparent.

That doesn’t mean that a good contemporary Marketing effort can’t include providing guidance to a team on key message points or even specific language here and there, but it does mean that letting people inside a company speak freely on the outside, and with their own voices, is key.  We do that on the Return Path blog — most of us, most of the time, write our own posts.  Sometimes we have someone in marketing take a quick pass through a post to edit it for grammar, but that’s usually about it.

Thanks to  Rob for the great thoughts.  It would be great to see more CEOs out there doing the same!