The mask of reputational spin

The impact of ‘reputational management’ leaves us all in need of protection from the ideologies of neoliberalism, argues Chris Holligan.

The maintenance of reputation by universities and individual academics through the metrics of league tables and the knowledge objects called ‘outputs’ has taken a high profile in recent years. For this reason it is timely to add some critical intellectual commentary as a way of helping us to gain a critical grasp of the nature of this morally and institutionally destructive paradigm.

Aristotle asserted in his book “Politics” that man is a political animal. The mask that is reputational spin reveals just as convincingly that organisations are also political animals. The public sphere of the modern world relies heavily upon cultures of dishonesty, disinformation and duplicity. Maybe it has always been thus…the work of the notorious political theorist Machiavelli in *The Prince* (1532) might imply this culture has been around before. The pejorative term ‘Machiavellian’ frequent appearance in contemporary contexts seems to endorse the truth of this negative characterisation of the modern world. The public and political spheres engage not with seeking to be truthful (not primarily in any event), but instead with trajectories of management reputation. Within that management of discourse there is a proliferation of proxies doing the ‘work’ that truth used to undertake. As the classical sociological theorist Ervin Goffman in his 1956 book *The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life* claimed life is best seen in terms of a dramaturgical perspective where masks frame all our social interactions. Like in theatrical performance there is a front region where the ‘actors’ (individuals) are on stage in front of the audiences. Reputation management is a conceptual frame, a mask, used by organisations to both present and organise perceptions about them in order to enhance their market worth.

All of us are familiar with political spin, but are perhaps less insightful about the role it plays in constructions of truth and the black arts of perception management used by the secret services (Andrews, 2009). The norm nowadays is to focus upon the presentational rather than upon the truth which is an embedded trend with profound consequences for the integrity and happiness of communities and individual personal wellbeing. It is as though truth telling is now so fraught with risk that the dangers and anxieties assumed to be associated with it mean that only the more foolhardy will as a matter of routine aim to orientate their behavior towards telling the truth. Truth provides us with no mask to hide behind. The hegemonic mask used by the elites is instead reputation management. Witness how difficult it is for skilled media interviewers to delve into the genuine reasons for things that take place and are planned to be developed by elites such is the power of that reputational hegemony to stifle authenticity and leave us none the wiser!

It might not matter, those issues just outlined, if they remained with those individuals and organisational entities, although even that is not ideal either, but such a mask causes incalculable damage to all of us, individuals and communities. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s (1930-2002) concept of the habitus refers to identities and their associated behaviors through which each of us is governed. While the elite in democratic states rarely use physical violence to extend their power and influence they do use, in Bourdieu’s terms, symbolic violence. The latter affects our emotional and mental states causing us to adapt in some way or other depending upon the form it takes on any particular occasion. The mask of reputational spin inflicts symbolic violence by degrading the social capital of communities leading to their members no longer having much trust for one another. One result of which is a rise in stress-related mental health problems in society as a consequence of the damage done to trust.

Power (2007) a UK academic sociologist, in his recent book entitled *Organised Uncertainty: Designing a world of Risk Management* might equally have opted for the frame denoted by my new subtitle “Designing a world of spin”. Spin is an activity which is deliberately strategic being at the heart of what Power calls the “Reputation Constellation”. Some argue reputation is the new management paradigm and that such a focus links it inextricably associated with questions of morality and therefore integrity. The reputations held organisations and individuals have come to figure more prominently in recent years affecting the rewards and esteem with which they are accorded. There are a plethora of private companies devoted to supplying the resources required for the successful management and presentation of a reputation by business and public sector companies. Such endeavors demonstrate the contingent and socially constructed nature of power. The effectiveness of reputation management is likely to be tantamount to augmenting its capacity to achieve in neoliberal political landscapes which are particularly receptive to the soft power held by certain brands. The problem for the rest of us is that in tandem with these processes whose underlying effect lies in the manufacturing of the truth is that they influence the extent of that valuable commodity trust. Trust, as the Cambridge philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill argued in her Reith Lectures (2002) “A Question of Trust”, is under serious threat and highly vulnerable to becoming a casualty of the capitalist world at whose heart is reputation management.

It took the genius of Karl Marx in his concept of false consciousness to anticipate how we are all the potential victims of vicious elite systems of social and political entrapment. By failing to realise the true nature of the context of exploitation which is intrinsic to the operation of the capitalist system of governance we live our lives in a state of false consciousness, believing that we are free, fully autonomous creatures. Reputation management is a contemporary manifestation of false consciousness in so far as it represents the attempt to hoodwink us into believing that we are observing the true state of the world when in fact it is a fictional variety. False consciousness is the Marxist thesis that the material and institutional processes inherent in capitalist society are misleading most of the people, particularly those he calls the proletariat. Moreover, it is claimed that sectional interests conceal the true relations of social power that pertain between the social classes. Viewed through this Marxist lens it is tempting to argue that reputation management is a mode of governance or ideological control. From which it follows that the oppressed in the socio-political order of neoliberalism might not only fail to observe their own manipulation by those skilled at spin, but in fact come to adopt unwittingly the values of their own oppressors becoming in their train individuals who through practices of consumption and self promotion design a unique reputational mask. To indicate how this process of capture develops the neo-Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) coined the term interpellation. Interpellation describes the process by which ideology ‘captures’ the naive individual and constructs his or her identity as a subject. Interpellation refers to the moment and process of recognition of the interaction, which in this essay we are calling the reputational mask. That mask hides from the subject an ideology (social and political values), but the mask itself is made to be appealing in order to ‘recruit’ from the subject loyalty and attachment to the thing the product brand represents. It envelopes us, brands our soul, before destroying our integrity. As O’Neill (2002) argued deception and misinformation are the real enemies of trust. But O’Neill failed to recognize how this political entrapment draws it capability from our desire to belong, participate and believe. We need laws to protect the human condition from the corrosive forces of neoliberalism.

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