The Fantasy of Rationality

Symbols trump facts every time. Photo courtesy of

Symbols trump facts every time.
Photo courtesy of

Since we emerged from the intellectually impoverished Dark Ages, philosophers and economists have been trying to make people fit into neat boxes prescribed by universal and predictable laws. They still are. Problem is, It never really worked.

For some, the laws are mechanistic — the universe is a giant machine, and we are merely cogs. For others, they are biological — societies are governed by the same rules as living organisms. For all, there is an assumption that their laws are immutable and we follow them unwaveringly.

Tidy concepts, indeed. But people aren’t rational, and they don’t move in lockstep. They act on emotion, on prejudices, on psychological and behavioral influences, on partial information (and sometimes misinformation).

Crisis & Reputation Management has long recognized that people respond better to symbols than facts.

How a situation is perceived depends on how people feel about it, and perceptions can be influenced. The more subtly, the better. No room for ham-handedness. That always backfires.

How is an issue framed? What is the context? Is there an existing perception of your client personally? Is he symbolic of a stereotype — a self-absorbed celebrity, a soulless financier, a corrupt politician?

Are you controlling the message? If so, you have the advantage of being on offense. Or is the other side? Which means you’re on defense and fighting uphill.

Are you acting early to head off a potential problem? Like an unhappy employee you just know is going to sue you. Or embezzlement you know will be discovered. Or an SEC investigation you know is coming. The best time to do damage control is before damage happens.

Is the issue already in the news? Have you already been sued? Have you suffered a data breach? Are you facing a product recall? Was your CEO caught sleeping and sharing company secrets with his secretary? If so, your options are limited and you have less room to maneuver.

What to do? Play the hand you’re dealt — with skill and subtlety. No time for amateurs. At best, you sidetrack the problem. At worst, you make it less bad.


“Because Reputation Is Your Most Valuable Asset”

Gillott Communications is a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that specializes in high-stakes Crisis & Reputation Management. If you don’t already subscribe, please sign up for our blog Insights on High-Stakes PR. You can reach Roger Gillott directly at 310-826-8696.


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