What do these three news stories have in common?
1. The unmasking of Mike Daisey's fabrications about working conditions at Apple's suppliers in China.
2. Shin In Geun's frightening and terrible story of his escape from a North Korean prison camp.
3. Greg Smith's New York Times op-ed, "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs," which describes a company culture that disparages clients as "Muppets" to be manipulated and "elephants" to be hunted.
The answer is that each story involves the inner workings of a highly secretive enterprise. We have a major technology company with a notorious policy of blacklisting uncooperative journalists; a ruthless kingdom ruled by coddled and cloistered elites accused of heinous crimes against humanity; and North Korea. By considering in parallel the three key players in these stories, we can discern a few lessons for promoting greater transparency in our world's institutions.
Last May in Seattle, I saw Mike Daisey's one-act play, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. It was a powerful and emotional experience, and it was built upon lies. How, then, shall we judge Mike Daisey? By the standards of journalism, he's a disgrace to a profession in which he allowed people to think that he was a participant. By the standards of activism, he caused harm to the cause that he purports to serve. Daisey is not even a particularly skilled manipulator of the truth, and so we cannot even grant him the grudging respect that we might offer an artist who paints unimpeachable forgeries in the style of the Old Masters. Nevertheless, we have to grant that he's a good storyteller with an instinct for identifying a popular cause. The sad part is that without having to make anything up, Daisey could have spun a very compelling narrative based entirely on the facts and noble sentiments alone. Now, he's a member of the infamous pantheon populated by fakers such as James Frey and Jayson Blair.
In contrast to an outsider drawing attention to invented injustices within a closed institution, with Shin In Geun we have an insider from the most closed society on Earth trying to draw attention to the jaw-dropping details of the most brutal, horrific circumstances imaginable. There's no way to corroborate his account short of something as momentous as the fall of the North Korean regime. All we know is that the details are sadly plausible, as was the case with Daisey's report. Telling Shin In Geun's story in the media is the right thing to do, if only for the forlorn hope that it might fortify the will of the rest of the world to increase pressure on the Hermit Kingdom. The Guardian was correct in publishing the story, and it would be absurd to suggest that the newspaper demonstrated a lack of objectivity by not interviewing North Korean prison guards or officials for "balance."
Prominent figures are suggesting a different standard for another outsider who went public with inside grievances, the Goldman Sachs ping-pong champion Greg Smith. Blame the messenger, we hear from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who wonders aloud why The New York Times published his insider account, and from Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, who complains about lack of media fairness and balance. Similarly, Goldman Sachs executives decry "that an individual opinion about Goldman Sachs is amplified in a newspaper and speaks louder than the regular, detailed and intensive feedback [employees] have provided the firm and independent, public surveys of workplace environments."
Ranking high on some magazine's "Best Places to Work" list is no substitute for regular engagement with the media, and there's no public benefit or transparency involved with a company's internal satisfaction survey. The only reason that an individual opinion from an ex-employee carries so much weight in this case is because of its inflated scarcity value. If Goldman Sachs were a more open company, insider knowledge of the firm would be a widely-traded commodity, and a scathing farewell letter would be barely worth mentioning. As it stands, Smith's letter knocked a few billion dollars off Goldman's market capitalization, an entirely self-inflicted wound.
Goldman Sachs is known for not engaging with the media unless absolutely necessary. As William Cohan says in the FT: "For most of the bank's storied 143-year existence, the unwritten rule around Goldman was to stay as far away from the press as possible." When that's how you treat the press, you shouldn't be surprised when a newsroom takes advantage of an opportunity to make you look bad. That's what the Greg Smith episode teaches us.
The Mike Daisey episode carries a similar message, demonstrating the risk of relying upon charm offensives targeted only at favored courtiers. Apple, despite cultivating good press by doling out valuable access privileges, was unable to prevent theater audiences, reviewers, and news outlets from readily accepting the premise that the company's supply chain was rife with child labor, workplace injuries, and chemical poisoning.
Finally, the Shin In Geun story reminds us how incredibly fortunate we are to have the freedom we enjoy, with food on the table and family with whom to share it.
Whether in financial services, information technology, or other sectors, the activities of leading companies and their employees advance economies and help the material well-being of billions in the developing world. However, in a free society, we should expect more than just marketplace success for our most prestigious commercial enterprises. We should also expect and demand that corporate entities operate at a level of transparency that respects the role of a free press in conducting honest inquiry and exposing injustice. Technology makes it easy to think that you can hide your actions and behaviors from the world, but it's equally capable of exposing those same failings.
Some lessons for organizations:
- Don't be a Hermit Kingdom. No matter how careful and ruthless you are, the truth will come out. Even if your organization isn't truly evil, you are at risk of being seen as such if you actively disengage with those who tell the truth.
- Don't be a Kermit Kingdom. With all due respect to the essential humanity of the Muppets, there's no excuse for dehumanizing, belittling, or insulting your customers. It's not worth the easy laugh, and being an obnoxious blowhard turns you, not your target, into the caricature.
- Turn insider opinions into a commodity, not a scarcity. You may suffer small nicks and bruises from wrestling with the press on a regular basis, but at least you'll avoid getting sucker-punched with a potentially lethal blow when you're not expecting it.
- Don't treat critics as enemies. By doing so, you may turn a critic with a valid point into an aggrieved party with a personal interest in your failure.
In the comments, let's hear your takeaways, along with story ideas for a forthcoming feature film with our felted friends, The Muppets Take Goldman Sachs.