It seems appropriate that on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Watergate break-in and the subsequent political scandal, we look at two modern examples of transparency and communication cover-ups.

Recently, there has been a growing demand for organizations to be more transparent, as the research backs the beneficial outcomes of transparency when it is handled well: happier employees, better public reputation and more investors. But while greater organizational transparency is worth aiming for, problems can result when it is mishandled.

Two events in the news media have vividly demonstrated this recently: Texas governor Greg Abbott and his administration's mishandling of public communication following the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the unraveling of Elon Musk's deal with Twitter.

Rushing to Be Transparent Can Backfire

The horrific shooting in Uvalde is unquestionably a profound human tragedy. But a valuable lesson in transparency and communication should be learned from the actions of the Abbott administration.

Abbott, due to a number of high-profile issues, has made calls for greater transparency in the past. Whether this influenced his actions in the first press conference after the shooting or not, it isn't hard to understand the political reasons why he may have been eager to say that the police had done their jobs and had made earnest efforts to stop the shooter.

But it's now clear that before he went before the microphone, someone in the chain of communication should have stepped in and told Abbott that nobody knew anything for certain yet. To praise the police's "quick response" and "amazing courage," and say that the tragedy could have been far worse without their "heroism," was a blunder that would come back to bite him once further details emerged.

However, the first mistake was the conveying of incorrect information to the governor prior to the press conference. Perhaps out of fear of incurring the governor's anger or disappointment, or a desire to calm the roiled PR waters, the communication team failed to caution restraint until the facts could be determined. Consequently, speed and bravado took precedence over accuracy.

The lesson here is that despite whatever pressure there may be for an organization to be as transparent and quick as possible when faced with a crisis, it can often be more prudent to resist the impulse and wait until all the pertinent facts have been investigated and confirmed. Then, and only then, should the information be transmitted through the chain of communication leading to the official spokesperson — that spokesperson being, in this case, Gov. Abbott.

It is also true that had Abbott not praised the police, the public's assumption may have been that something had gone wrong. But as the uncredited saying (often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain) goes, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."

Unfortunately, because of the way events transpired, many have now concluded the latter about Gov. Abbott.

Weaponizing Transparency Causes Problems

There are times when ill-informed or ill-timed attempts to be transparent put individuals or groups on the defensive, but there are also times when individuals or groups intentionally use transparency to go on the attack.

A recent example of this is Elon Musk, not exactly a paragon of transparency himself, filing to back out of his deal with Twitter on the claim that they have not been transparent enough with him.

According to Musk, Twitter has failed to provide the data he needs regarding the percentage of Twitter's users that are made up of bots and fake accounts. This is despite Twitter's repeated attempts to provide him with said data.

What Musk has done over the last few months, since his initial accusation in May, is weaponize transparency. Interestingly, his tactic of weaponizing transparency has remained consistent despite Twitter's attempts to meet his demands.

This raises the question of who gets to decide what "transparency" even means in a given situation. In an early response to Musk's initial accusation, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal stated in a thread on Twitter that part of the data they use to determine whether accounts are real or fake is private user information that they are not allowed to share, to which Musk publicly responded with a poop emoji.

Despite Musk's response, what Twitter did was what every organization must do in situations involving public communication, which is to decide how transparent versus how impenetrable they should be with a given body of information.

It is difficult to know if the Musk-Twitter deal falling through means that Musk's weaponization of transparency has been successful or not because it depends on what his true motives have been, which are inscrutable.

If he was sincere about the deal and genuinely believed Twitter was withholding information despite their claim that they had provided it, then his tactic has failed because he did not get the information he claimed they were withholding.

However, if he was insincere and looking for a legally defensible way to back out of the deal, then it remains to be seen whether the tactic was a success or failure as it hinges on what will happen in the legal battle to come.

Either way, his weaponizing of transparency has already done damage to Twitter's credibility and, quite likely, to his own. Weaponizing transparency is a risky business, and it should not be undertaken lightly. Chances are it is a strategic tactic that should never be wielded at all.

What these two stories in the media demonstrate is that transparency is not a simple matter. It is not the case that more is simply better in every situation, unconditionally. Often, there needs to be restraint, patience and the willingness to take criticism so that when transparency does happen, it happens in a way that lends genuine clarity, not more confusion, chaos or negative impacts on credibility.

(Rebecca Weintraub is an emerita clinical professor of communication and emerita founding director of the online master of communication management program at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California; Steven Lewis is an entertainment industry strategist and award-winning documentary filmmaker.)

Illustration shows Elon Musk image on smartphone and printed Twitter logos