Defining Reputation

Everyone Knows That Reputation Is Important, But Can You Define It?

By Thomas J. Roach

Reputation is the accumulation of stories and images of a person or an organization. Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez benefited from news stories praising them for their accomplishments in sports. When they were accused of doping, they denied the charges and many people believed them.

Essentially their denials used the strength of the accumulation of positive news stories about their accomplishments to counter the charges against them. In other words, their reputations told us that they were above cheating, so the charges must be wrong.

Eventually, in both cases, the accumulation of stories about their involvement in doping, and the testimony from other people and institutions caused the public to recalculate their reputations. Now many people see their praiseworthy accomplishments as examples of cheating, and their denials as evidence of their peevish behavior.

No one heard of Rosie Ruiz until she was declared the winner of the 84th Boston Marathon. Later news reports said people had seen her riding a bus during the race, and she was soon stripped of her title. She was not able to generate the public support that Armstrong and Rodriguez enjoyed initially because there was no previous public reputation to counterbalance the charges.

The Power of Reputation
The power of reputation can be seen in the comparison between Armstrong and Rodriguez and Ruiz. While all of them end up discredited, the process for Ruiz was much faster because there was no previous reputation to contradict the evidence of unacceptable behavior.

The key to understanding reputation then is to realize that it is not based on one event or story: it is an accumulation of events and stories and sometimes personal experiences.

Another important point made by these examples is that significant reputation problems override even the most extraordinary accomplishments. This adds up to one inescapable conclusion: reputation is every organization’s most important possession.

For professional public relations practitioners it is useful to see reputation as a kind of bank account. Good deeds and accomplishments are like deposits, and incidents demonstrating greediness and selfish behavior are like withdrawals.

If a quarry does nothing to benefit the community and is only known for conflicts with residents, then it is making withdrawals without making deposits. The end result is bankruptcy of reputation, with almost everyone in the community siding against the quarry whenever there is a dispute over zoning, noise or safety.

Basic Premise
All businesses face problems like this, because a basic premise of contemporary business practice is that almost anything that increases profits can be justified.

Arguably profitable mining operations serve the community by creating jobs and producing affordable aggregates that are essential for building and expanding infrastructure.

The problem with this perfectly logical argument is that jobs and infrastructure are abstractions to the average community member. More meaningful and apparent deposits into the reputation bank account are made by quarry executives participating in community fundraising; donations of property or services to community projects; and hosting community events like quarry tours or on-site geography lessons for student groups.

The old belief that “no news is good news” no longer applies in the age of interactive mass media. Today no news is a vacuum that is easily filled by bad news. A good reputation is the accumulation of good news.

And a really good reputation is one that is the result of so much good news that it insulates the organization from the occasional peccadillos and conflicts that would tarnish it.

What is reputation? Think of it like this. Every day your quarry takes something out of the community by mining a natural resource. What do you give back? If you have answers to this question, then you are defining reputation.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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