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The reputation game: how to control the way we appear in the eyes of others

From Harvey Weinstein to Taylor Swift, celebrities have become their own PR agents – and we are following their lead.

In Reputation, translated into English by Stephen Holmes and Noga Arikha, the Italian philosopher Gloria Origgi writes that we all have “two egos, two selves”. There is the physical and mental sensation of being you. Then there is the version of you that exists in the social world – a hazy, shifting, warped image of the real thing.

This is your reputation. It is you, because it derives from your actions, and also not you, because it is composed of other people’s opinions. It is a portrait of you that you didn’t commission and don’t own. Origgi is interested in the power that this second self exerts over the first. A person’s reputation can push him towards certain decisions instead of others. It can make him feel pride or shame. It can open doors or slam them shut.

“We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them that they have chosen to show us,” writes Taylor Swift in the essay that accompanies her new album, Reputation. In reality, we know the version that other people have shown us. As Swift knows only too well, a person’s image is never wholly under her control. Our reputations are always filtered through the sentiments, prejudices and interests of others, which in turn influences how we see ourselves. In 1902, the American sociologist Charles Cooley coined the term “looking-glass self” to describe how we regard ourselves through the eyes of others. The looking glass is a distorting mirror.

Today, everyone’s second self is encoded in contrails of data: pictures, ratings, clicks, tweets, searches and purchases. Corporations and governments rake over this information and fix us in it: we are subjected to the scrutiny applied to celebrities but without the fame or the free stuff. In one possible future, everyone will be ranked like hotels on TripAdvisor. In one possible present, in fact: the Chinese government is implementing a scheme that will give each of its 1.4 billion citizens a score for trustworthiness, with the stated aim of building a culture of “sincerity”.

In the West, even without the intervention of the state, we have created a system in which everyone can be held accountable to their public image. As Swift writes, hers is the first generation with the responsibility of “[curating] what strangers think of us”.

Since nobody can opt out of having a reputation, we have to learn how to manage it. In other words, we need to become our own PR agents. The Reputation Game is written by two people from the PR business, David Waller and Rupert Younger. They introduce a useful distinction between two types of reputation: capability and character. The first refers to competence in a specific task, such as cooking a meal, providing mortgages, or making aircraft engines. The second refers to moral or social qualities. Someone can have a great reputation for competence, while at the same time being regarded as slippery or unpleasant. Uber is good at what it does, but you wouldn’t invite it home to meet your mother.

Capability reputations are sticky: they take a long time to wash away. An author who writes great novels early in his career can produce many mediocre ones before people start to question if he is any good (naming no names, Salman Rushdie). Character reputations are more flammable, especially in a world where social media can instantly detonate bad news. A strong reputation for competence defends you against character problems, but only for so long, as Uber is finding out. When your character reputation is destroyed, competence becomes immaterial.

***

I’m Harvey Weinstein,” he used to tell people. “You know what I can do.” The news about Weinstein broke after these books went to print, but both have something to say about it. Weinstein had a powerful capability reputation that protected a sullied but serviceable character reputation. Actually, he had two capability reputations. As well as being someone able to get artistically ambitious movies made, he was perceived, in Hollywood, to be capable of destroying anyone who crossed him. This latter reputation stopped women talking and journalists publishing. It acted as his flood barrier. Only when his reputation as a successful movie maker went into decline did the dam break.

Reputation is a second-order phenomenon. It is not constituted merely by what people know about the person or entity concerned but by what people know about what other people know. As Origgi puts it, “Reputations are maintained by a circulation of true or false opinions about opinions.” Before his defences collapsed, Weinstein’s monstrosity was hinted at in magazine profiles, joked about in the comedy series 30 Rock and flagged up by Courtney Love. In the aftermath of his fall, Hollywood insiders spoke about how his behaviour was an open secret. “Every­body knew” became the new “Nobody knows anything” (the screenwriter William Goldman’s often-quoted axiom about the movie industry). But until everybody knew that everybody knew, Weinstein was safe.

In a psychology experiment conducted in 1968, people were asked to fill out a questionnaire while waiting for the experimenter to return. As they did so, smoke was pumped into the room. When participants were working alone, they reacted or reported the smoke almost immediately. When they were in groups, they were slower to act, waiting even to the point at which they were choking, because nobody wanted to be the one seen to be panicking unnecessarily. They took surreptitious glances at the others, and when they saw them not reacting, they didn’t react either. The function of a fire alarm, then, is not just to let everyone know there is a fire – it is to let everyone know that everyone knows.

In the case of Weinstein, the New York Times and the New Yorker sounded the alarm – or rather, they amplified an alarm sounded by the women who agreed to go on the record. Suddenly, everyone acknowledged the fire. But there was already plenty of smoke, circulated by his many victims in preceding years. Waller and Younger note the role that gossip plays in keeping reputations in check. It “helps flush out the boss who is lazy, the head teacher who is a bully or the colleague who is untrustworthy”. This is true, but bullies, idlers and cheats don’t get flushed out until the gossip is publicly validated.

Reputations are made up of opinions, but some opinions count more than others. As Origgi writes, reputation has formal and informal ingredients. The first category includes official qualifications, institutional imprimaturs and endorsements from the powerful. In any system, there are gatekeepers with the power to raise up or pull down reputations; to admit or exclude individuals from the circles of the capable or good. Weinstein’s iron grip on the machine of validation was what enabled him to get away with his behaviour for so long. He was assisted by the heads of Hollywood studios and talent agencies, who are mostly male. The word “valid” is rooted in power: it derives from the Latin word validus, which means potency. Men are the validators.

Then there are the informal ingredients of reputation: rumour, innuendo and gossip, all of them are disreputable. As Origgi puts it, “Informal reputations have a terrible reputation.” When Theresa May launched her leadership campaign in 2016, she said, “I don’t gossip about people over lunch,” and we all understood. Gossiping is a sign of low character. To refrain from it indicates probity, to ignore it is good judgement.

But I don’t trust people who don’t gossip. There is something cold and bloodless about them, and I have always felt as if they are hiding something, from others or from themselves. I think Origgi is probably right when she suggests that the disdain for rumour and gossip conceals “a drive for authoritarian control”. Formal reputations can be established by a few individuals at the top of a hierarchy. Gossip is egalitarian and subversive.

While Weinstein maintained his power over the media, what kept the story of his abuses alive was women talking to women, in whisper networks, text messages and WhatsApp groups. Gossip is conventionally characterised as feminine. While this is partly a result of the male horror of intimate conversation, it’s also because, for centuries, it has been a weapon deployed by women in an asymmetrical battle with adversaries in possession of all the heavy artillery. Gossip is dangerous because it is unaccountable, but it is what you resort to when you do not have a seat at the tribunals at which reputations are made or broken. It is the smoke you pump into a room when nobody will let you in.

***

Of the two books, Reputation is the funnier and the more serious. Origgi is ravenous for insights whatever their provenance, and her book is a giddy blend of cross-disciplinary perspectives. Reputation can be recondite – it includes sentences such as: “Thus, just as ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny, so ontology does not recapitulate philology.” (I mean, duh.) But it mixes crunchy intellectual provocations with literary allusions, catty takes on academic life and some juicy riffs, including one on why Origgi’s highly educated friends invest magical powers in certain doctors. There is even an author selfie, taken with a slightly uneasy looking Tim Berners-Lee.

The Reputation Game, which is aimed at a business audience, is a more sober affair.
David Waller was a journalist for the Financial Times and is now a management consultant. Rupert Younger was the co-founder of Finsbury, a successful PR firm, expensively acquired by the advertising group WPP in 2001, and he went on to found the University of Oxford’s Centre for Corporate Reputation. Younger is described in the book as a “leading academic” who is “a member of the senior common rooms” at two Oxford Colleges. I confess I don’t know what that means – free biscuits? – but it sounds impressive, which tells us something about the reputation game.

Waller and Younger are nothing if not well connected, and they interviewed a vast array of eminences, including Reid Hoffman (the co-founder of LinkedIn), the novelist Hilary Mantel, the rapper Jay-Z
and, rather inexplicably, the disgraced stockbroker Bernie Madoff. These conversations yield almost no memorable quotations whatsoever – but then, successful or prominent people do not automatically make good interviewees. Quite the opposite: their reputation, or their institution’s reputation, imposes tight constraints on what they can or cannot say, and they are usually too well practised in public speech to say anything interesting.

The story of how the authors secured an interview with Madoff is at least amusing. They write to him, care of the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina, asking if he will correspond via email. He agrees on the condition that they send $200 to cover some mysterious “costs of correspondence”. The authors agree. Madoff asks them to wire the money to a PO box in Des Moines, Iowa. They do so, but don’t hear anything back, so they write asking if he received the funds. He tells them that he hasn’t, gives them a new address and asks them to try again. They send another $200 and wait. Again, nothing. They chase it up. “I am at a complete loss,” Madoff replies. So they send more money, this time by a different route. Only then does Madoff confirm that he has received the funds.

He then proceeds to relate, in his emails, what he calls “my tragic history”: a version of events in which he emerges, miraculously, as the wronged party, beset by aggressive investors and trapped by the vagaries of financial markets. Bewilderingly, the authors appear to take Madoff at his word and invite the reader to feel sympathy for him. Their naivety is hard to explain, except, perhaps, by the deep-rooted instinct of PR professionals to paint clients in the best possible light. The Madoff chapter closes with the words, “After many years of success, he has lost the reputation game.” Isn’t life cruel?

Maybe there is a contrarian reading of the Madoff story that accords with his version of it, but to make that case, one would need, at the very least, to interview the victims of his former reputation: the many investors, not all of them rich, whom he first deceived and then deprived of their money in order to enrich himself. Waller and Younger interview only one other person on the subject. He does confirm Madoff’s account – but then, he is Madoff’s attorney. A reluctance to make character judgements is also evident in Waller’s and Younger’s discussion of Russian oligarchs, who are admiringly portrayed as “tough, smart and uncompromising” entrepreneurs, rather than as, say, unscrupulous and exploitative chancers.

Waller and Younger reserve some of their warmest words for people in their own profession. PR entrepreneurs “display an unstinting appetite for bringing people together. Night after night, their homes are open to editors, ministers, ambassadors, EU commissioners and CEOs… who are invited with the promise of fine wines and electrifying conversation.” How enchanting! That crinkling noise you can hear is the sound of chocolate spheres being unwrapped from gold foil.

I wonder if crooks, oligarchs and dictators are invited, too. If you recuse yourself from character judgement, presumably anyone is welcome as long as they are powerful. Yet – as Tim Bell recently discovered – even PR titans are vulnerable to the perception of amorality. (Bell Pottinger, the company Bell co-founded, imploded after accusations that it had helped stir up racial tensions in South Africa on behalf of a client.)

Waller and Younger describe the role of a PR executive as a network broker: a “junction box” through which people from different spheres of influence can connect. It’s an oddly passive self-conception, and perhaps it explains why The Reputation Game is such an oddly passive book. Waller and Younger assemble abundant material – interviews, case studies, summaries of academic research – but they don’t impose themselves on it, which is good practice for hosts but not authors.

Fresh insights or provocative opinions are altogether rare in these pages. In their place, we learn, “Timing is an inestimably important factor in politics”; that reputation “is not always fair”; and, “Authenticity is important in today’s complex and uncertain world.” A discussion of the post-power reputations of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – an interesting question – weaves and wanders without so much as stubbing its toe on an interesting answer. When everyone is a potential guest, judgement cannot be risked. I only hope they never interview Harvey Weinstein. 

Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters
Gloria Origgi
Princeton University Press, 272pp, £24.95

The Reputation Game: The Art of Changing How People See You
David Waller and Rupert Younger
Oneworld, 304pp, £18.99

Ian Leslie is the author of “Born Liars” and “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief