The Habit of Character

Public Relations, Marketing And Advertising Create The Illusion 
That We Can Manufacture Reputation, But It Is A Fool’s Errand.

By Thomas J. Roach

Reputation is a broad term that implies prestige, reliability, quality, values and strength of character. Much effort and money is spent touting the other attributes, but the important one is character, and character must be observed.

Our perceptions of character are not derived from predictable, politically correct messages generated through focus groups, but on the accumulated evidence of non-negotiable behaviors.

Anything worth having has a price, and the price of character is honesty, self-reliance, courage and reliability. Character is a cognitive discipline that demands accepting responsibility, owning up to mistakes, and having the courage to reject social and financial pressures. For the corporation it may mean withholding a product or service because it might be compromised. For the individual, it may mean telling your boss, “I won’t do that,” and walking away from the job.

Character is not dependent on knowledge or influence or even philosophy. We recognize character in others when we see they have the fortitude to withstand pressures and when they refuse to help themselves at the expense of others.

Do no harm is a rule not a philosophy. Striving to get what you want may require discipline and courage, but it also may be driven by shame, pride or greed. Character is more apparent when we help others instead of helping ourselves, especially when we take a position against our own best interests.

President Jimmy Carter suffered a crisis in leadership and failed to be reelected, but as we watched him as an aging ex-president his strength of character became more and more apparent. We may not agree with his politics, but no one can deny that, every day of his life, Carter was the man he said he was.

Learning From Film
Some memorable film roles explore character. Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” articulates the dichotomy of following a code of ethics and denying personal wants. He has fallen for Brigid O’Shaughnessy, but he tells her he won’t help her avoid being arrested for murdering his partner: “I won’t because all of me wants to, regardless of consequences.”

In “Aliens,” Ellen Ripley refuses to lie for her company. “I don’t understand this. We have been here for three and a half hours. How many different ways do you want me to tell you the same story?” As the movie progresses, she fights alien monsters with the same panache. Later, when Marine Corporal Hicks shows her how to fire a weapon, she asks about the grenade launcher. Hicks tells her she shouldn’t mess with that. Ripley says, “Show me everything. I can handle myself.”

Hicks’ response is, “Yeah, I noticed.”

Bridge of Spies
There are three illustrative examples of character in the 2015 film, “Bridge of Spies.” Director Steven Spielberg based the story of a prisoner exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, but at its heart, the movie is about character. Lawyer James Donovan puts his reputation and life in jeopardy defending Rudolf Able, a Soviet spy, and by pursuing a prisoner swap for captured U.S. Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The Soviet spy is a model of character with a different ideology. Able has refused offers to betray his country for freedom and money and is facing execution. Three times during the movie Donovan asks him why he isn’t worried, and Able replies, “Would it help?”

The third example is a story within the story. Able tells Donovan he reminds him of a man in his village who was beaten by guards. Every time they knocked him down, the man stood up again. The guards eventually gave up and called him Stoit i muzhik, Standing Man.

Public relations, marketing and advertising create the illusion that we can manufacture reputation, but it is a fool’s errand. Reputation is grounded in character, and character is not about how we want to be seen; it is about who we are.

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 Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].