How conspiracy theories affect reputation management

August 9, 2010
bike racing

Why is it that some stories that don’t make sense often get stuck in the public’s consciousness and can never be dislodged?

Even if they’re ridiculous. Unsubstantiated. Absurd. So the story of the Bush Administration’s orchestration of 9/11 continues to resurface. And an increasing percentage of Americans believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. Conspiracy theory affects the easily influenced and persuaded but it also infects bright minds and the level headed. Why?

Because we all share a basic human need to want to believe that our lives are far from haphazard. Our minds are constantly working to convert chaos to order. We believe that events are somehow driven by a hidden hand, a plan, or even a conspiracy. And so we look for meaning even where none exists.

For us, it’s too painful to believe that a nondescript group of hijackers could commandeer commercial airliners, kill more than 3,000 innocent human beings, trigger wars, and inflame global hostility. Similarly, it’s impossible to acknowledge that a troubled loner could, with a single shot, murder the most powerful leader in the world. The cosmos can’t work in such ways. They are too fantastic of stories that demand back stories, so we fill them in to alleviate our own discomfort.

The human tendency to replace the unexplainable with an explanation has an inverse effect as well. When the evidence suggests that a conspiracy has led to a specific result, we often disbelieve our own eyes and instead replace the obvious truth with an imagined outcome.

Such is the case of my personal hero, Lance Armstrong. I first came to love Lance in 1999, when he won his first Tour de France after beating cancer. I read his books, fell in love with the story, and hung a framed poster of Lance in my office as a reminder of victory over adversity. And even though my own eyes were telling me something different, I believed it all.

Here was a guy who got off death’s bed to lift himself over the Alps and Pyrenees, faster and higher than anyone else. His performances were super human. I wrote speeches about Armstrong’s accomplishment for my clients to read at sales conferences. I told and retold the stories of how Lance cracked the field and beat the mountains seven times to win the most grueling of athletic endeavors.

And yet, there were signs everywhere that he, like most top-ranked cyclists of that era, had cheated. A number of his lieutenants, those that have ridden on his team, had intermittently come forward with allegations. An alleged positive drug test for EPO was made public by a French newspaper. A teammate testified in court that he overheard Lance tell doctors about his illicit drug use while being treated for cancer.

His retirement from the sport, while at the top of his game, and then his ill-timed return, suggested that he struggled with the risk of getting caught, only to return to the sport once it had cleaned itself up to prove he could win in a clean and fair race.

Then, there was the mushroom cloud effect of US Postal-Lance’s old cycling team. Many of its members were Americans. Many became world-class cyclists quickly. Compared to US soccer, where America has worked for decades to achieve international success, cycling did it in a few short years. I should have wondered at that point, could there be more to the story? Could they have just been good at sharing the secrets of doping?

My denial of all things Lance Armstrong was nothing more than a reverse conspiracy theory. Lance was clean because of the back story that preceded his every performance. The dots had already been filled in for me. This was not random. It was the result of greatness with the proof being his conquering of cancer. It allowed me to blind myself to the apparent truth-one that is now the subject of a Federal investigation.

Brutally put, Lance Armstrong cheated. And not only did he cheat, but he probably did it in a revolutionary, systemic way, infecting others by sharing and educating them through his team to the wonders of performance enhancing drugs. Unfortunately, the very greatness of his accomplishments should have raised suspicion. It didn’t. The backstory assured me.

So what does this all have to do with reputation management? Truth is often determined more by storytelling (of the lack thereof) rather than the facts of a circumstance. The more we can back fill a story, the greater the chance of we can preserve a legacy or reputation. Without the story, our hands are tied.

I once represented an institution that suffered the grave suicidal loss of a patient under their care. There was no other reason for the loss other than the patient was troubled. But nothing could be communicated about the events out of deference to patient privacy. The story was not there. The dots didn’t connect. The Institution paid a terrific price.

On the other hand, there have been instances where clients have faced real threat. But the backstory was intact. The price paid was much lesser than when the story was absent. As public relations professionals, it is our charge to craft the story with truth and humanity to preserve the integrity of those we serve.

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Frank Freudberg
8 years 6 months ago

Hi Greg. Great post on an often overlooked subject. I'm chiming in here with a relevant quote by Will Rogers: "It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute." Rogers wrote that about 100 years ago, and though its essence still rings true, I think his time horizons need to be updated, thanks to vastly faster information (disinformation?) dissemination. How about, "It takes thirty-eight milliseconds to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in two milliseconds."