One of the largest realizations I’ve come to understand over the last ten years is how much reputation matters in our society; how quick we are to judge, come to a conclusion, form an impression.  And in most circumstances, we often make impressions without truly having 100% certainty of what it is we believe in. What does this mean? Well, for one thing, we’re becoming increasingly credulous. But also, we put a lot of faith into who we source information from, and I think that’s something worth exploring a bit more.

 

I majored in philosophy in college, and one question I asked myself a lot (and still do) was, why is it that we care so much about our reputation? And further, why are we so quick to form our perceptions? Are we really at a point where we can read a one-minute article or watch a 30-second news story and run away with legitimate opinions? Have we become addicted to what people think of us on social media?

Not too long ago I sent a direct message via Instagram to Kevin Durant, an NBA athlete all too familiar with reputational damage, after I read in a Wall Street Journal interview that he pays attention to his fans’ direct messages, and occasionally, responds. Even better, I learned that he loves philosophy. I posed the question to him, “why do you think we care so much about perception and not enough about truth?”, and the most controversial athlete in the modern-era responds to me, “the truth is hard to accept. Too hard for some humans.” Of course, that’s just about as thoughtful of an answer someone with 12 million followers can give me, but he had a point: we filter information through our biases and often times arrive at conclusions we want to believe in rather than investigating the truth. When Kevin returned from his calf sprain injury in the 2019 NBA Playoffs and subsequently tore his Achilles tendon in his first game back, the sports media promptly attacked the Golden State Warriors organization for forcing Kevin back early in his treatment process. The public was quick to jump on this story. Of course, it was risky to have him back on the floor, but did an organization with a highly regarded reputation brazenly force the best basketball player on earth into danger?

 

My initial draw to public relations, I feel, was because it was the management of reputation and public perception. Society is arguably the most discerning it’s ever been, and the media has never played a more important role. And, to add to all of that, our attention span has shrunk more than that of a goldfish – eight seconds – making information consumption extremely linear and filtered. Your company’s reputation is in your hands, and how the public perceives it is on the shoulders of the media. As Italian philosopher Gloria Origgi puts it, “we are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge. From the ‘information age,’ we are moving towards the ‘reputation age,’ in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others.”

 

Origgi argues that reputation plays a central role in the way that we consume information; you are only going to take in news from a source, TV channel, or newspaper whose reputation you trust, right? In an era where we have access to an unprecedented amount of information, you’d think we would become more cognitively autonomous, as Origgi says, but we’ve actually become more reliant on how other people judge and evaluate that information. Whether we like to admit it or not, we rely on biased judgements of others to form our perceptions. Our authority of knowledge has become paradoxical.

 

A perfect example Origgi gives around this view is the conspiracy theory that we never landed on the moon, and that the entire thing was essentially a Hollywood production. We believe that we landed on the moon because that’s what the United States told us at a time when the nation had a reputation for sincerity.  But if you were to ask me how I can prove that we landed on the moon, the best thing I could do is point you to some news stories and say, “look here, you idiot.” However, I don’t know who these reporters are who wrote or broadcasted these stories; I just trust their reputation and that of their media outlets. (Although twelve years ago, I did briefly meet Buzz Aldrin – I wonder if that’s justifiable enough.)

 

The reputation age is a dramatic change in our epistemology, or theory of knowledge. We are burdened with misinformation (“fake news”), unreliable sources, and shifting narratives on a daily basis. What does this mean for public relations? Well, if reputation is our gatekeeper to knowledge as Origgi says, I’d argue that the media own the keys, and our role in shaping stories isn’t just ancillary to their journalism or our clients’ reputation; it’s now integral. Which journalists and media we choose to pitch stories, how we frame those stories; these are elements that continue to play into public perception and brand reputation. PR isn’t the cheap alternative to advertising; it’s the medium through which public trust is generated. Companies can spend years building a good reputation, and as we saw with Theranos and plenty of other companies who fell victim to ethical disasters, a single news story can eviscerate it.

 

When Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors this summer, he remained quiet for several months after. His media hiatus left his situation open to widespread speculation and public opinion, and some of the biggest media personalities floated the story that the Warriors engaged in medical malpractice with Kevin’s injury in an attempt to clinch their three-peat. Given the controversial nature of the story, it dominated the mainstream conversation for weeks. However, some media didn’t speculate, and when Kevin was ready to open up about what happened, we learned the truth in his interviews – that he sought external, third-party medical counsel and made his own choice to return. Unfortunately, that wasn’t as interesting of a story as the disparaging one that haunted the Warriors for weeks following Kevin’s last game.  In this case, the perception that many wanted to believe (that the Warriors knowingly sacrificed Kevin) left the truth in the shadow, and it came at the cost of his former team’s reputation.

 

Though I don’t think I have the complete answer, I think reputation matters in today’s age because reputation forms conviction. How we source information and form opinions has never been as quick and complex, and as we rely more on others to evaluate and deliver information, we must also become more judicious in how we approve or disapprove information. While PR has its own important role in that process, I think we as typical media consumers must also be more careful with where we gather our news and, equally as important, not be so quick to form our perceptions.

 

Our paradox of knowledge must become appreciated.