How many companies would let one of their own openly attack and criticize its actions in public?

That’s the job of The NY Times’ Public Editor, a “readers’ representative” who investigates the actions of his own paper. His job is to follow up on reader complaints and make sure everything at the paper is on the up and up. He’s like the journalistic version of an internal affairs cop.

He’s given a wide berth to call it like he sees it too. For example, he recently took issue with the paper’s decision to run a discounted ad from criticizing Gen. David Petraeus.

The ad violated The Times’s own written standards, and the paper now says that the advertiser got a price break it was not entitled to…

For me, two values collided here: the right of free speech — even if it’s abusive speech — and a strong personal revulsion toward the name-calling and personal attacks that now pass for political dialogue, obscuring rather than illuminating important policy issues. For The Times, there is another value: the protection of its brand as a newspaper that sets a high standard for civility…I’d have demanded changes to eliminate ‘Betray Us,’ a particularly low blow when aimed at a soldier.

I won’t get into the politics of this specific issue, but I do think it’s refreshing to see this level of transparency from a big media company. After all, a newspaper’s job is to serve as a watchdog that tracks the hypocrisies and abuses of power taking place in big government and big business. So it better be able to take a long, hard look at itself too. What’s good for the goose…

There’s a lesson here for non-media businesses too. The age of secrets is dying. It’s all going to be out there. If you report on yourself and tell the truth about both your successes and failures, you get ahead of the curve. Sure, sometimes that might mean taking a short-term PR hit. But in the long run, you make it back in spades by earning long-term credibility.

Similar jobs exist in other media companies too: The NPR Ombudsman is the public’s representative to the station.

Even a rigorously managed programming organization may inadvertently depart from its own standards and practices, and abuse its freedom and power to inform and entertain. NPR is dedicated to identifying such transgressions if they occur, correcting them, and acting to prevent repetition.

And Charles Warner, professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, recently wrote about ESPN’s ombudsman.

ESPN should be praised for having the guts to have an ombudsman…Can you imagine the Fox News Channel or MSNBC publishing a critique of the fairness or accuracy of its news coverage and bloviators? By having an ombudsman, ESPN sends the signal that it cares about providing accurate, fair, and balanced coverage of sports. It gives this signal with action and behavior, not with Orwellian marketing slogans.

ESPN’s ombudsman helps maintain that balance and keep its reporting journalistically sound. But, more important, it sends a message to its audience—on TV, on the Web, and on radio—that it is making an effort to be fair and balanced and that it is providing an open mechanism for getting feedback from its audience. Being open to feedback and to comments from an audience is important to younger, Web-savvy fans and to higher educated, upper income fans, which is good business because a credible medium provides a much better environment for advertising. There is a credibility rub-off factor from believable content to advertising.

Update: Many non-media companies have them too. Here is The Ombudsman Association Standards Of Practice. Organizational ombudsman is explained this way at Wikipedia...

Using an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) sensibility, an organizational ombudsman can provide options to whistleblowers or employees with ethics concerns, provide mediation for conflicts, track problem areas, and make recommendations for changes to policies or procedures in support of orderly systems change. One particularly important function is to pick up “new things”—that is, issues new to the organization. This is particularly important if the “new thing” is “disruptive” in the sense of requiring the organization to review and possibly improve its policies, procedures and/or structures.