“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
“To disregard what the world thinks of us is not only arrogant but utterly shameless.”
For much of human history, public reputation mattered to a relatively small number of people. It was usually a matter of social status anxiety for the upper class, for most other people reputation was a private commodity within family and close community. Today, we are all visible and an attack on our good name is a public event that can destroy our livelihoods. In our century it has become vital to manage our reputation. We live in the age of reputation. As Warren Buffet said it is the work of moments to ruin a reputation and today, that loss takes place in real time, online and immediately.
From Roman times to the 17th century reputation mattered hugely to a relatively small number of people. For this narrow class it could define your ability to make a living or forge a marriage or career. Insults to reputations were settled by duels fought to restore honour. If you were slighted in the tearoom in Bath by a failure to be acknowledged, word would spread within a tiny segment of society and it would matter to this tiny group a great deal. It might affect your ability to make a good marriage. By the 1760s, the many social rituals, the obsessive marking, recording, announcing and, indeed, painting, of the significant rites of passage of life – births, engagements, marriages, deaths – began to broaden the numbers and classes of people for whom reputation mattered in the public sense of defining your place in the world.
These announcements were also the first form of the data collection that taken together could tell the story of an individual life. This was the first way in which there was a systematic measure of a person’s passage through life as a matter of public record. For some this meant the publication of these significant moments in The Times, for many others the entries were in Parish records. Alongside these official and semi-official documents, the 1700s saw the development of scandal sheets, newspapers and the age of the pamphlets as the means of attacking a reputation. These attack documents provided the flip side to the smooth progression recorded in what was then known as the paper of record. If you should fall, an unfortunate marriage, a bad investment or a failed political intrigue, then the means were available to let a “public” know what had occurred. But that public was small relative to the general population. This was in the age of print – distribution by carriage, printing by hand, writing in ink and setting in blocks. Before the telegram came at the end of the 19th century there was no instant news but there certainly was an arena in which reputations could be made or broken.
The meaning of reputation was transformed in the age of total war by the advent of the mass media and the re-ordering of what mattered. It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of the First World War for the dismantling of individual and collective identities. The impact of the technology of communication in these years, mass circulation newspapers, radio, cinema, newsreels and the creation of professions designed to use these mechanisms for selling and promoting or for attacking and destroying. While for the narrow band of society that cared, social status and position still mattered and was still carefully recorded, reputation was redefined by what you did, what you contributed in war and peace, and it could be made much more easily from much rougher materials. A good reputation became solidly middle class, as the United Kingdom became a solidly middle-class culture. The reputation that mattered was one of appearance, decency and playing the game correctly. It was almost as if, as much of Europe and Russia degenerated in totalitarian nightmares of racial and class-based states that killed many millions, the British clung to an idea of themselves as distinctive. The reputation of the decent Brit was offered as a counterpoint to the goose stepping and gulag. But it was a broad-based sense of what it meant to have a good reputation, the trade unionist had as much call on decency as the bank manager. The tabloid press and rapidly expanding magazine sector allowed some management of your place in this reputational world and the quality of newspapers and BBC news allowed for a certain degree of benchmarking against which exaggerated claims to virtue could be debunked.
As we come to reputation in our own century, we are dealing with the reserve currency of the age. There is no gold standard. There is only perception. The digital era is one which thrives on speculation, constant information, perpetual reinvention and the victory of hype over evidence. The situation is both an opportunity because that which is not fixed can be changed. And a threat. If you can change your reputational value so can others. The marketplace of reputation has not been so volatile since the 18th century but now everyone’s reputation is being traded, measured, viewed and recorded. The benchmarks of truth have disappeared. We are in flux. At this moment in our history there is no way to easily tell the difference between truth and illusion, between genuine and fake news, between who you are and who the internet says you are. In time the technology that created this situation will also deliver ways of verifying information instantly. But that technology has not yet arrived. For now, your reputation is in your hands and it is shaped by the digital footprint that you make. In an environment of feverish social media activity designed to expose, promote, discover and tantalise. Your reputation can be altered with a single 280-character tweet or blurry photoshopped Instagram picture.
The reality is that you do not have a choice but to coast guard your own reputation as best you can by controlling what you can control of what appears online about you. Unless you propose to go entirely off the grid of the 21st century then your existence has a digital dimension. If you are involved in any kind of business your presentation of yourself through that digital dimension can make the difference between success and failure. So professionally you must engage. You have to think about how you present yourself, protect yourself and project yourself. This portal is the place to begin to take control of your digital imprint. The profile here begins that process and our team of reputation management experts can then take the process as much further as you would like. Proactively managing everything that appears online about you begins now.