I make no apologies for returning to the concept of Reputation – particularly in its organizational context.
And I make no apologies for continuing my critique of the British Public Relations industry’s misguided strategy in aligning itself with something which is highly complex and currently beyond its capacity to truly affect.
I was prompted to return to the subject of Reputation by re-reading the seminal book by the late Stephen R Covey – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He was prompted to write that book after researching the success literature (self-improvement etc) published in the United States since 1776. He concluded: “I began to feel more and more that most of the success literature of the past 50 years was superficial. It was filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes – with social band-aids and aspirin…[that] left the underlying chronic problems untouched to fester and resurface time and again.”
By contrast, the literature of the first 150 years focused on what he calls the Character Ethic as the foundation for success – integrity, humility, fidelity, courage, etc. He cites Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography as the story of one man’s effort to integrate certain principles and habits deep within his nature.
The quick fix, social band aid variety of success he calls the Personality Ethic.
This dichotomy seems to me to describe perfectly the dilemma of Reputation and why PR’s efforts to build its house on it is doomed as surely as if it was building on sand.
Abraham Lincoln once said: “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
That word Character again.
PR believes it is in the business of perception, so it might seem logical to focus its efforts and energies on making the shadow of Reputation as good as it can be. Reputation is seen as having a commercial value, so aligning your raison d’etre to something your prospective clients think is valuable is a good way of getting you up the commercial food chain.
The trouble is: it is the Character of the organization which predominantly determines its reputation. Sure, its ability to communicate effectively (a legitimate role for PR) with its audiences is part of that, but not the whole and not even the most important part. It strikes me that what PR often seeks to do in its worker bee way is actually to hide the Character of its paymaster and call it Reputation Management. You’ve heard the expression ‘putting lipstick on a pig.’? It might look prettier, but it’s still a pig.
The field of reputation is littered with the dead and wounded of a corporate world that has been more obsessed with reputation than with character. Take the banking sector as an example. In what way could Public Relations seriously manage the reputation of a sector that had behaved so badly that it nearly brought the West to economic ruin?
It was powerless. It had no leverage in the Character crucible of organizations. It could not appeal to higher principles because it had no credibility there. Reputation Management? Hmm.
Just to drive the point further into the plasterboard of my argument – I quote from Richard A Lanham’s book The Economics of Attention referring to a book by James Grant entitled Money of the Mind in which he talks about the implications of ‘the socialization of risk or the disenfranchisement of character as a competitive element in banking.’
That word Character again.
Lanham is a rhetoritician. Rhetoric is an honourable forebear of Public Relations. Lanham writes: “Rhetoric’s term for character is ethos, and ethos was…a central element in human persuasion and hence human affairs.”
Character, not personality. Tree, not shadow.
Given the parlous state of reputation amongst so many organizations and institutions, Public Relations could see an opportunity here to address the real problem of reputation – the unprincipled character of their paymasters.