Friday, October 31, 2008
The Problem With Full Disclosure Is That It's Not
By Max Kalehoff In this age of transparency, it seems everyone with a voice in the blogosphere or mainstream media feels compelled to provide "full disclosure" of any possible conflict of interest. Here lies the problem: The idea of full disclosure is deceivingly straightforward, yet it's never unequivocally factual or transparent. In almost every case I've witnessed, full disclosure is subjective. Therefore, the term is an oxymoron.
Here's what is factual: As Peter Himler reminded me, full disclosure is a term that has migrated from the halls of the SEC, where it originated as a regulatory guarantee that a company's material news reached all stakeholders equitably. But it recently has achieved trend status among marketing and communications professionals, much the same way "authenticity" has. (I'm going to pull my hair out if I have to hear another advertiser or agency talk about authenticity as the greatest new strategy since sliced bread. It's a value you live up to -- or not.)
So what is full disclosure, really? At best, it's an acknowledged attempt to be transparent and reveal conflicts that otherwise would make another party distrusting. It's a signal of effort to reveal material information, intended to build trust and appear reputable. That's a noble aspiration on the part of an individual or group.
But it's important to remember that humans are not creatures wired for 100% transparency. That would make life pretty inefficient, impractical and, probably, impossible. And when disclosure becomes part of our lexicon and a perceived unit of social currency, it becomes subject to interpretation or abuse. We all have agendas, and to pretend otherwise -- through full disclosure -- is a fallacy.
That's why, at worst, full disclosure is an attempt by communicators to make others believe they are trying to be honest when deceit or ulterior motive is at the core. In our world, fact probably lies somewhere in between, most of the time.
As a marketer and shaper of brand reputation and trust, I'm particularly sensitive to growing and excessive misuse of the term, especially since it's reached cliché status. I believe transparency is a core tenet of our evolving marketing profession and society. But I also believe the idea of honesty requires an enlightened membership that doesn't go around self-proclaiming its attempts at material disclosure are actually full, unambiguous and objective. Sometimes they are, but most times they aren't.
I think it's most important to acknowledge and then act in the spirit of full disclosure, but avoid diluting the intention or act by calling attention to the term. As Matthew Hurst said: "research shows that the phrase 'in fact' is more used when what follows is opinion; 'full disclosure' may be similar!"
In fact, it is.
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Max Kalehoff is vice president of marketing for Clickable, a search-marketing solution for small and mid-size businesses. He also writes AttentionMax.com
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