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The Media Cloud and Reputation

I’ve long had a theory regarding reputation, and in particular, how one’s public persona is captured, reflected and shaped by the news media over time.

It goes like this: the higher one ascends, the greater the capacity for him or her to descend. Conversely, the bigger the fall, the stronger the rebound. (“Everyone loves a comeback” applies to the latter. Schadenfreude, the former.)

There are countless examples of spectacular public falls from grace that over time have given rise to new heights of exaltation. Prominent examples range from politics (Richard Nixon, Newt Gingrich) to entertainment (Britney Spears, Robert Downey, Michael Jackson) to fashion (Kate Moss) to business (Ford, Apple…yes, even Apple was on the brink) to sports (Michael Vick?).

To truly understand the forces that drive the vicissitudes of reputation is a holy grail for PR professionals. After all, if one could influence the time/distance between these peeks and troughs, let alone their heights and depths, that person would be in great demand. (I’ve often considered applying for one of those journalism research grants to try to get my arms around this equation.)

It was with this in mind that I took notice of the story in today’s New York Times “Arts” section, of all places, that described a project of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Ethan Zuckerman and his colleagues have developed Media Cloud, “a system that tracks hundreds of newspapers and thousands of Web sites and blogs, and archives the information in a searchable form.” Aha, I thought. There now exists a means to analyze the dynamics of reputation…and influence.

“Who has the power to place an idea on the national agenda is another question that [Harvard Law Professor] Mr. Benkler said Media Cloud could help answer. For instance, how is the conversation about the recession and the financial crash shaped? Using some of the database’s more specialized tools, Mr. Benkler investigated who first floated the idea for a temporary takeover of the financial system by the government, as was done in Sweden in the 1990s.”

The ability to search, scrape and analyze vast amounts of time-stamped media data opens up myriad possibilities for those charged with managing reputations and influencing public opinion. The days of a metrics-driven approach to reputation management are not far off. I can’t wait to tool with it.