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Image Manipulation and Reputation Management
The game has become too skilled and too scaled
I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
And no one's future to decide
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song
One of the intriguing aspects of the FTX saga is the fawning press coverage that Sam Bankman-Fried received from so many media outlets before his enterprises imploded. It appears that this was the result of a highly professional public relations campaign. I mean, there have been frauds before. People have been not what they seem before. But the scale of this seems unprecedented.
The favorable press treatment of SBF amounted to valuable “free advertising” for his businesses. To what extent was it really free, and to what extent were quid pro quos involved?
Once upon a time, journalists were reputed to be hard-bitten skeptics, the sort of guy who wouldn’t publish his own grandmother’s version of a story without checking it first. If there are still such journalists around, where were they on this story?
I keep coming back to the last half hour of this video, with Marc Cohodes raising the sort of questions about SBF that nobody in the press seemed to want to raise. There were others who had doubts about FTX. Was the lack of attention they received in the press just luck? Or something more sinister?
Back in the days when people discovered tunes by hearing them on the radio, disc jockeys were sometimes bribed by record companies to play particular songs. This was termed payola. When the practice was outlawed*, record companies turned to more subtle means to promote their artists. But with so many talented musicians hoping to “make it,” standing out enough to achieve success success often depends on effective promotion.
*Payola may have been outlawed by Congress, but payola to Congress is standard procedure. The WSJ described how SBF engaged in it.
When I started “The Homebuyer’s Fair” on the Web in April of 1994, I engaged the leading PR firm in the mortgage sector. The idea of trying to do business on the Web was novel at that point, and I was an unknown. I correctly guessed that only with a credible PR firm behind my press releases would they get press releases read by the industry publications. The $5000 I spent was more than worth it.
Image management is not a new problem for humanity. One can come up with many historical examples of image manipulation. Politicians and generals, business leaders and entertainers, even religious leaders have all sought to cultivate their own reputations and often encouraged “hit pieces” on their rivals. And Erving Goffman published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life back in 1956.
But somehow I think that PR strategies and tactics have in recent decades become more refined, more sophisticated and more effective. The Ukraine War might be exhibit A. Ukraine’s President became an instant media hero, and that country somehow became a free-world bastion, when in reality it was a corrupt, shady place.
We resent the phony images and the media manipulation, but there is nothing we can do about it. People who want to make it on their own, based on authenticity, are at too much of a disadvantage to get anywhere. You can go much farther with expert help and a large budget. In the competition for public acceptance, the contest is not between you and your rival. It is between the image your team tries to cultivate for you and the image that your rival tries to pin on you.
About twenty years ago, I had an opportunity to observe Jeb Bush in an informal setting. I was never involved with his political career in any way, and I never championed him, but I remember coming away thinking that he could pass the Turing test—he seemed like a genuine human being. When he ran for President in 2016, Donald Trump successfully manufactured a negative image for Bush, and Bush never escaped. Chances are your view of Jeb Bush is similarly dim.
When the media cover a story, often the entire purpose of the coverage is to manipulate the images in the story. Thus, the shooting at an LBGTQ bar in Colorado was widely reported as a hate crime, until the shooter was revealed to be self-professed “non-binary.” At that point, the media moved on to something else.
As colleges move away from using SAT scores and to more subjective measures, they are just asking to be manipulated by wealthy parents, who can figure out the PR game involved in gaining admission to the prestigious schools. Paying for an SAT tutor might raise a kid’s score by 20 or 30 points, perhaps even less than that. But I am sure that paying for someone to manufacture a student’s image by coaching the kid on which activities will look good on an application and on how to craft an admissions essay or interview gives much more bang for the buck.
It used to be that most ordinary people would have genuine interactions with their friends and family. With smart phones and social media, even that realm of authenticity may be compromised. In that environment, can anyone pass a Turing test? Does anyone even try?
Now, since I’ve started existing more and more publicly online, in my guarded way, I’ve met quite a few new friends—all nice people, as far as I can tell. I’ve had phone calls, teleconferencing sessions, small collaborations, and exchanges of ideas. I think I’m pretty cordial back. Becoming friendly, most often, getting to know one another privately.
But that’s individualistic and gradual and completely unscalable. To the amorphous masses of strangers existing as statistical data, I owe exactly what I’m being paid.
In today’s world, the only defense against other people’s use of image manipulation may be to doubt everyone. Treat every impression as artificial. That seems rather dystopian.