Talking Telstra and transparency on Radio National

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My world was dominated by Telstra last week. Apart from my writing and a radio spot about the government’s plans to split the telco, I also spoke on ABC Radio National’s Future Tense on Thursday about the sudden closure of their nowwearetalking blog.

I’d already written about that shutdown here and over at Crikey. However the Radio National conversation was in the more general context of how social media is affecting corporate transparency.

You can listen to the program (at least for now) and read the full transcript over at the ABC’s website. The other guests were Shel Holtz, co-author of Tactical Transparency; Mark Hannah, a New York-based communications consultant; Mike Hickinbotham, Telstra’s Social Media Senior Advisor; and ABC economic correspondent Stephen Long. well worth checking out.

Here’s the full text of my section.

Antony Funnell (ABC): Now one of Australia’s prominent bloggers on communications trends and politics is Stilgherrian. So what did he make of the Telstra decision to close nowwearetalking?

Stilgherrian: I’m not surprised, but I think it was a false step. They really had started to turn it round from being the propaganda piece it was, to something that was much more conversational with their customers and with the people who were interested in what they were doing. But the problem is, all of that four years of previous negativity was still online, and I can understand that a big corporation just wants to obliterate the memory of that, for two reasons.

One, to stop people finding it and hitting them over the head with it, but also for the new management team really to mark their territory. There’s a lot of that, shall we say, weeing on the tree happening I think, and this is just the corporate equivalent.

Antony Funnell: So you do think though that in the latter stages of that website’s life, that they were genuine in their attempt to be more transparent with their customer base?

Stilgherrian: Genuine as much as they could within the kind of corporate culture that Telstra has. They are still very much a control-the-message, top-down PR kind of organisation. It will take a long time to turn that around.

Antony Funnell: Now leaving Telstra to the side, this whole notion of transparency in business, where companies use social media tools, use the Internet to try and give across a message that they’re being transparent, that they’re being more open, how real do you think that actually is?

Stilgherrian: There are some companies who really are trying to do it, and I can think of 37signals who, well they’re sort of based in Chicago, but they have people all over the place. They go to the extent of really discussing in public how they’re making their design decisions about their product. They discuss quite openly when they have any service difficulties and so on. For other companies, it’s pretending to be transparent, they’re trying to look as if they’re transparent, but they’re still really trying to control it, so when they have a situation that’s not perfect, that’s going wrong, they still don’t want to talk to you about that, they only want to be transparent when it’s a happy message.

It is going to be hard for them to deal with that. It’s going to take perhaps a generational change before we accept, or before the corporations and their senior executives accept that you can admit to the occasional failure, and people will not crucify you for that, in fact they might be happier if you’re honest and say ‘Look, we stuffed up there, and this is what we’ve done to fix it’, and that magic word, ‘Sorry’.

Antony Funnell: You mentioned generational change there; do you believe that as that generation that is very familiar with social media, as they grow up, as they get older and start moving into management, is there a hope that they will be more willing to engage, more willing to be transparent?

Stilgherrian: My own feeling is that if you talk to any 15-year-old now, they’re already (or even a 20-year-old) they’re already making so much more of their life public than you or I would have ever thought of, and don’t think anything of it. I’m almost tempted to say that all of the ‘keep your dirty washing behind closed doors’ is very much Victorian-era prudery.

Before people separated out into their lovely middle-class terrace homes in London or Manchester or wherever, then people were all bundled together, they did see each other’s lives, both good points and bad points. And I think they were much more judged on how they were as a person than on the image they projected as a worthy citizen.

Perhaps we’re going back more to that time. In terms of how those younger people will move through organisations, I think that gradually they’ll be turned off from organisations that don’t accept them for the actual human beings that they are, with warts and all.

They will soon talk amongst themselves about whether someone was sacked from a job because they had an inappropriate photograph on Facebook, and gradually those organisations will find it harder and harder to hire talented, creative people, the kind of people they need to create the future, and instead they will be stuck with the dull conformists that just don’t have anything interesting on Facebook because they don’t have anything interesting in their life.

[Disclaimer: This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers. I have made some minor corrections.]

3 Replies to “Talking Telstra and transparency on Radio National”

  1. On a slight bend to your telstra article. It’s interesting to see if all parties will agree on the split. We’ve just launched a free political site that I think you may enjoy. We hope that we can help educate australians about our federal politics and this week’s question is on the telstra split. As you are a well respected blogger would love your thoughts?

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