The business of reputation
The reputational aspect of the reference-check process has taken on increasing importance, particularly with the proliferation of social media and increasing shareholder and public activism
I stopped loving Woody Allen a long time ago, but I erased his work from my life in 2014 when his daughter Dylan Farrow wrote a piece alleging her adoptive father had abused her when she was 7. That finally did it. I could no longer separate the man from his formidable professional reputation. Allen lost a fan who had supported his films through years of stories about his problematic relationships with, and attitudes towards, underage girls.
I was reminded of this when watching Hannah Gadsby’s powerful stand-up act Nanette on Netflix.
“Do you know what should be the target of our jokes at the moment? Our obsession with reputation,” she said. “We think reputation is more important than anything else, including humanity.”
Gadsby said celebrities were the biggest beneficiaries of the “myopic adulation” of reputation. “They’re all cut from the same cloth. Donald Trump, Pablo Picasso, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski. These men are not exceptions, they are the rule…,” she added, listing men who have been accused of sexual misconduct or charged with assault.
India has its own honour roll of male celebrities who haven’t missed more than a step or two despite serious allegations of sexual assault. All these culprits have well- respected fans who have defended them because of their powerful professional reputations, just like my “unconditional” love for Allen’s films had imbued me with the ability to ignore other aspects of his personality. Gadsby concluded the segment with an emphatic “F*** reputation”.
If only it were that easy.
Our knowledge of celebrities is shaped almost entirely by their work, their public statements/behaviour and their reputation. Depending entirely on the last can be lethal. It is not enough to rely solely on reputation, as fans of the German football team found out last week. The defending champions lost to South Korea and were eliminated from the World Cup.
Yet, reputation shapes the way we view a person. Name the Indian politician who is obsessed with his image. Which politician frequently hops on to a flight to get away from India? Which super-successful cricketer, now retired, was known to studiously avoid taking controversial stances on any public debate?Which ageing film star is petulant on Twitter? Which chief minister is known to switch smoothly to the winning side? Most of you know who I’m thinking of, even if you disagree with my evaluation of their reputations.
Even one of the world’s most successful pop singers and the winner of 10 Grammys, Taylor Swift, felt the need to defend hers last year in an entire album titled, what else, Reputation. From the lyrics “Reputation precedes me, they told you I’m crazy, I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me” in End Game to “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me” in Delicate, Swift takes us through the spectrum of assessments about her image and reputation.
The idea for the album came at a time when Swift’s digital life was in the news regularly for all the wrong reasons. About being called a snake on social media by reality television star Kim Kardashian, Swift said in May while touring the album, “I learned a really important lesson...and that has to do with how much you value your reputation. I think that the lesson is that you shouldn’t care so much if you feel misunderstood by a lot of people who don’t know you, as long as you feel understood by the people who do know you.”
If you’re in the job market, your reputation is usually being assessed by people who don’t know you. In the digital age, this can be particularly tricky. “Reference checking has always been an integral part of the hiring process. Apart from professional conduct and ethics, this has expanded to include personal behaviour and particularly social media activity. Many management contracts in Western countries include a morals or a good behaviour clause,” says Sonal Agrawal, managing partner at Accord Group India.
In April, Kotak Mahindra Bank sacked an assistant manager for a hateful Facebook post on the eight-year-old who was gang-raped and murdered in Kathua, Jammu. In June, Bank of America sacked a Delhi-based assistant manager after a journalist complained that the bank employee had sent him abusive messages on Facebook Messenger.
“The reputational aspect of the reference-check process has taken on increasing importance, particularly with the proliferation of social media and increasing shareholder and public activism. Our firm has even started a stand-alone reference checking service, which includes an informal market reference check, as well as verifications and formal checks,” Agrawal adds.
Reputation management is big business now. “In a growing market, with increasing competition, rising consumer awareness, heightened regulatory scrutiny and an evolving media ecosystem, brands have to stay alert to any risks to their reputation. It literally takes a second for things to go from good to horrible,” says Prema Sagar, one of India’s most influential public relations professionals. “So ‘reputation repair’ in that sense is a part of the overall communication mandate today, because there could be an incident at any time. What is important is to not let it flare up and become something that has long-term impact on the brand and the trust people place in it.”
Sagar says it’s key to continue going even after the immediate response, to learn from the crisis and have a plan to avoid or address it better if it recurs. “Unfortunately, a lot of companies look at that only after they have been through a crisis,” she says.
And sometimes, like in Allen’s case, there is no repairing a reputation.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
She tweets at @priyaramani