June 17, 2014

A Sterling Reputation and the Importance of Impression Management

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you heard the many news reports accounting the many issues revolving around Donald Sterling? I’m speaking about the 2014 installment that began in April. (He’s had previous flurries of bad press…)

Mr. Sterling and his wife, Shelly, have co-owned the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team and have many residential investments. He started as an attorney, then invested in residential properties, and was very successful financially. He has published regular full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times (and others) showing his philanthropic efforts to many different organizations and causes.

A recording of a private conversation in which he was recorded making racist (and sexist) statements with a companion (or employee), Ms. V. Stiviano. The news came fast and furious once the tape was leaked. According to the Washington Post, Sterling told his companion, V. Stiviano:

"In your lousy f—ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people,” Sterling told Stiviano in the recording. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people … Bring him here, feed him, f–k him, but don’t put [Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games."

Donald’s wife, Shelly, is suing Ms. Stiviano for the return of property and such that her husband gave her. Subsequently, Ms. Sterling has said he has dementia, then she made a deal to sell the Clippers, after which Mr. Sterling initially said he would sue the NBA. As of this writing, he is refusing to cooperate with the sale of the team. Other lawsuits exist with previous companions and continue with Ms. Stiviano.

People working in the nonprofit organizations to which Mr. Sterling had publicly claimed he made large donations have revealed that they did not always get the donations. Some of the awards he had received for such donations were of a quid pro quo nature – the donation for the award. The NAACP was about to give Sterling a lifetime achievement award but it has been withdrawn and the head of the Los Angeles chapter resigned.

The Sterling saga is a good example of the breakdown of impression management.

Impression management is a process through which we all work to create and maintain a particular reputation or image of ourselves (or other entities, e.g., businesses) that others might hold. Self presentation, managing our own behaviors and appearances to evoke particular impressions, differs in different situations thus these concepts help explain why we might act differently in some setting than in others.

Managing the impression of others involves a range of strategies, including ingratiation, intimidation, self-handicapping, and self-promotion, all of which are linked to self-esteem. Ingratiation consists of making oneself liked through saying good things about others so that they like you. Intimidation includes imposing forceful pressure upon people to notice and agree with you out of fear. Self-handicapping, on the other hand, involves using expressions of weakness to promote sympathy and empathy for support and to avoid blame. Self-promotion is the relentless advertising of oneself to keep others thinking about you.

It seems very clear that the Sterlings have used all of these strategies to maintain and protect their many businesses and the wealth that they have generated.

Ingratiation. Donald Sterling had published ads regularly promoting his philanthropic pursuits and other good deeds. This altruistic public face builds good will. From the reports of his interactions with nonprofits, he (and his people) used ingratiation to get their support. They were quite  2014-05-01-DonaldSterlingsSkidRowhomelesscenterconvincing but now that more details have emerged about whether those checks were actually written, or how and why they were negotiated, and his personal feelings and behaviors towards women and people of color, well, those efforts to look altruistic ring false.

Intimidation tactics included lawsuits and threats of lawsuits. There is a long history of lawsuits related to their businesses and to relationships with personal assistants, companions, and employees. Those create an image of a formidable presence whether or not they prevail in court.

Self-handicapping was evident when the Sterlings send out another press announcement that explains why things are such a mess. He has dementia. It’s V. Stiviano’s fault. They are getting divorced. These examples are all meant to make us feel sorry for them and to view them as people mired in a mess caused by disease, personal distress or of other people’s making.

Self-promotion includes the act of telling others just how good you are. Those full page newspaper ads served this strategy as well as ingratiation. When interviewed, the Sterlings often list all the good deeds they do or have done. Attendance at the Clippers’ games also served to maintain their public image.

All of these strategies have been used to create and maintain an impression of the Sterlings as good capitalists, competent business people, and avid sports fans (at least of their own team). The Sterling “front stage” enterprise’ has been carefully created and nurtured.

Have these strategies been successful at maintaining a good impression of the Sterlings? Has their impression management served its purpose? I would suggest that, yes, they have been quite active and proficient users of all of these strategies to date.

But we’ve now seen behind that front stage to the quite active backstage, as heard in the recording, reports from nonprofit personnel, and all the subsequent efforts to change our impressions. Can they repair their image with more impression management?

What else in this saga can be explained by impression management and the presentation of self? How else can sociology help us understand the Sterlings?


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