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Summary: Character Assassination and Reputation Management: Theory and Applications by Eric Shiraev, Martijn Icks, Jennifer Keohane and Sergei Samoilenko


Understanding character assassination and reputation destruction is a useful, defensive skill for anyone in business or, particularly, in politics – where character assassination is practically a varsity sport. Professors Eric B. Shiraev, Martijn Icks, Jennifer Keohane and Sergei Samoilenko offer illustrative, entertaining stories about historic leaders and famous people ruined by character assassination. Unsurprisingly, American leaders – including the Clintons and Trumps – feature prominently, but these stories can help you learn to protect and defend yourself.


  • Character assassination has always been part of human interaction.
  • Character attacks target a person’s or group’s politics, behaviors, actions or beliefs.
  • Certain people, targets and topics are more susceptible to character attack than others.
  • The basis for character attacks shifts with time and place.
  • The 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections featured new levels of character assassination.
  • In assessing whether an attack succeeds or fails, the audience’s reaction matters.
  • Reputational attacks and character assassination can have widespread consequences.
  • Increasingly, people and institutions focus on reputation management.

Summary: Character Assassination and Reputation Management: Theory and Applications by Eric Shiraev, Martijn Icks, Jennifer Keohane and Sergei Samoilenko


Character assassination has always been part of human interaction.

Character assassination means purposefully and publicly setting out to destroy the reputation, good name or credibility of a person, group or entity, with either true or false information.

Attacks on the reputation of people or companies, including character assassination, occur across the worlds of politics, business, academic, sports and entertainment. Successful or notable people are usually the targets. In today’s social media environment, even members of the public may find themselves the victims of shaming, cyber-bullying and other reputational targeting.

“As long as humans have been living in groups, they have been finding ways to smear each other to gain power and advantage.”

Throughout the ages, famous and powerful people have come under reputational attack. Egyptians essentially erased Pharaoh Akhenaten from history due to his religious beliefs.In 15th-century England, Henry VII unfairly vilified his predecessor, King Richard III, whom Shakespeare and various historians excoriated well after his death.

In the early 16th century, Martin Luther used the newly invented printing press to attack the integrity of the pope and the Catholic church. By the 19th century, mass market newspapers showcased personal and political attacks. Abraham Lincoln’s enemies targeted him in newspaper articles and ads, calling him an idiot, an ape and a coward.

Character attacks target a person’s or group’s politics, behaviors, actions or beliefs.

In the race for the US presidency in 1988, photographers found Democratic front-runner Gary Hart – who was married – partying on a yacht with another woman, Donna Rice. He denied any impropriety, but the media persisted. Hart ended his campaign. He had made the mistake of daring the press to follow him, and it did.

“Reputation is concerned with how other people perceive and judge us.”

Attackers often base their assaults on gender roles. Female Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut, for example, often tried to mask her gender. Because she was female, Egyptians largely erased from her from history after her death in 1458 BC. More recently, historians have ignored the profound contributions of female scientists. Women leaders come under character attack based on their gender – as do men who appear less than manly. Critics mocked former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher for acting too “masculine.” Former US president George H.W. Bush and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis suffered occasional attacks accusing them of appearing “feminine” and therefore “weak.”

Leaders including Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, entertainers such as Michael Jackson, and sports celebrities including Tiger Woods have been victims of character assassination based on their alleged sexual proclivities. The morals of the day determined the basis for such attacks. Kaiser Wilhelm associated with known homosexuals. While married, Woods conducted affairs with other women, and Jackson allegedly enjoyed the company of young boys. Each provided fodder for prolonged character attacks.

In other cases, athletes and actors who attempted to exert their influence beyond their domain made themselves targets – for example, by voicing opinions about politics or carrying out political acts.

Certain people, targets and topics are more susceptible to character attack than others.

Presidents Ronald Reagan – and after him, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump – as well as Russian president Vladimir Putin deflected a lot of scandal and many attempted character assassinations. The media routinely describe them individually as “Teflon,” meaning that insults slide off them.

“While character is about personal traits we actually possess, reputation can be defined as a complex social evaluation of an individual’s character and behavior.”

In 1993, the Conservative Party of Canada took out ads intended to humiliate Liberal Party leader Jean Chrétien. The ads focused on a facial deformity that caused Chrétien to speak only from the right side of his mouth. The public reaction was quick and severe. People felt sympathy for Chrétien, who quipped that he would rather speak out of one side of his mouth than both sides as the Conservatives did. His attackers pulled the ads, but voters crushed the Conservatives.

The basis for character attacks shifts with time and place.

What people considered moral in Ancient Egypt or imperial Rome, for example, differs significantly from what people regard as moral today.

Character assassination can include attacks using various media that targets general or specific audiences. Attacks include ridiculing people’s appearance, questioning their intelligence, or impugning their character on the basis of their ethics, morals, behaviors and beliefs. Context matters, too. For example, an attack on a person for selfishness in a culture that emphasizes collectivism might succeed, whereas the same attack in an individualistic culture might fail.

“Because character assassination is strategic and intentional, in order for it to succeed, it has to be persuasive to a particular audience.”

When British prime ministerial candidate Boris Johnson launched attacks against Hillary Clinton in 2007, he was hoping to endear himself to conservative voters in the United Kingdom.In another context, foreign attacks also can influence voters, as did Russia’s successful campaign against Mrs. Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election.

Reputation bashing includes attacks that aim at a target’s personality, behavior or identity, and range from basic accusations and name-calling to complex campaigns that may employ indirect and subtle means. An anonymous attacker might plant rumors of marital infidelities or even murder, as did accusations that the right wing made against Hillary Clinton in the 1990s. An attacker might use innuendo, as Marco Rubio did in 2016 when describing Donald Trump’s “small hands.” Opponents of Barack Obama questioned his birthplace and parentage to cast aspersions on his citizenship and imply that he had dual loyalties.

Decades before, attackers attempted to impugn John F. Kennedy’s loyalties by implying that his Catholicism would make him beholden to the Pope. Such attacks have a venerable history. Millennia earlier, Octavian pointed to Mark Antony’s cohabitation with Egyptian ruler Cleopatra – and his residency in Alexandria instead of Rome – to cast doubt on his loyalties. Octavian became Emperor Augustus and defeated Antony and Cleopatra in battle.

Character assassination in democratic nations differs from that in autocratic or despotic nations. In democracies, opponents often directly attack powerful leaders when they are running for office or in office. Dictators and autocrats enjoy a lopsided advantage over their opponents because they control the media and can launch limitless attacks. Through such tactics as censorship, scapegoating and ersatz trials, autocratic leaders can humiliate and vilify their enemies without fear of retaliation. On pain of severe punishment, those who are not in power wait until tyrants die – or are overthrown – to attack their reputation or legacy.

The 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections featured new levels of character assassination.

Name-calling, ridicule, scapegoating, fear-mongering and disgracing has intensified among candidates in recent US elections. In his campaign against Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump attacked pretty much everyone, including his Republican and Democratic opponents and leaders of allied nations. He called Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau “two-faced,” and in 2016 said of Clinton that “she ate like a pig.” Meanwhile, she referred to a wide swath of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables.”This vitriol is designed to get the public’s attention, upset opponents and control the narrative.

“Today, of course, anyone can launch an attack.”

In the 2016 and 2020 elections especially, candidates used the internet and social media to bypass mainstream media and take their message directly to voters. These highly targeted attacks proved effective in swaying undecided voters or shoring up support among partisans. Campaigns also used them to provoke anger or action. In 2016, for example, a Twitter post about Democratic gatherings in a DC pizza parlor grew to include patently false accusations that the restaurant was the site of organized child sexual abuse. Not long after, a man who believed these fantasies entered the restaurant, waving an assault rifle and making threats.

In assessing whether an attack succeeds or fails, the audience’s reaction matters.

When effective speakers attempt to persuade an audience, they win over their listeners by employing Aristotle’s three modes of rhetoric: ethos (personal credibility), logos (logic) and pathos (emotion).

“The audience is the ultimate arbiter of whether an attack is successful or not.”

For example, in the 1950s, television reporter Edward R. Murrow attacked Senator Joseph McCarthy in a special CBS broadcast.The highly credible Murrow made a well-structured, logical and emotional argument against McCarthy’s communist “witch hunt,” a campaign that ruined the careers of many Americans on the flimsiest of evidence. McCarthy attacked Murrow in turn, but the senator’s weaker credibility and flawed logic ended up boosting Murrow’s position and hastening McCarthy’s political demise.

Reputational attacks and character assassination can have widespread consequences.

The impact of character assassination can range from negligible to devastating, but more than once, it has determined the course of national elections – indeed, even the fates of nations.

For example, when the FBI examined Anthony Weiner’s laptop in 2016 on suspicion that he was involved with underage women, they found sensitive emails from his wife, Huma Abedin, a senior staff member in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This provoked the reopening of an investigation into Clinton’s private use of government email servers and may well have cost her the election.

“Reputational risk refers to the degree of a threat to character-based reputations that can potentially develop into a crisis.”

The media often frame people’s behaviors in particular contexts. For instance, in Richard Nixon’s failed 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy, the media portrayed Nixon as tired and old. When Barack Obama wore a light suit to a press conference in 2014, the media attacked him for seeming unserious while discussing matters of international importance. Some media outlets frame presidents who play golf as lazy or inattentive to their duties. But who these commentators frame and how often depends on their agenda. When John Kerry ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004, the media jumped on false allegations that he had exaggerated his heroic actions as a swift boat captain in Vietnam. The attacks worked so well that the term “swiftboating” became synonymous with smearing.

Increasingly, people and institutions focus on reputation management.

Few people live to see their published obituaries, but in 1888, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, saw his premature obit, and it shocked him into action. The obituary was in error: It accused Nobel of having found a way to kill more people than anyone before him in history. Seeking a more positive legacy, Nobel funded the famous awards for peace, literature and scientific achievement now given annually in his name.

“Neither researchers nor practitioners working in the field of reputation management have a universal recipe or a magic formula to best manage reputations and protect individuals against character attacks.”

You can turn to a menu of methods – albeit imperfect – to manage reputational damage, perhaps including public apologies. You particularly want to get in front of negative stories that are about to break by first putting your own spin on them or by attacking your opponents before they attack you. For example, in 1992, Bill and Hillary Clinton knew a scandal was coming. Bill Clinton’s former affair with Gennifer Flowers was about to become public. The Clintons preempted the news about Flowers by appearing on the television news program 60 Minutes to present the affair in a softer light, relating it to the kind of marital problems “all couples face.”

Governments sometimes go to extremes to protect their images or their leaders. The Soviets, Nazis and other dictatorial regimes persecuted thousands for even minor breaches, including the possession of oppositional or foreign books and newspapers. For instance, in 18th-century France, authorities imprisoned more than 100 people in the Bastille for mocking the king. This led to the French Revolution and King Louis XVI’s execution.

About the Authors

Psychology professor Eric B. Shiraev is the co-author of Cross-Cultural Psychology: Critical Thinking and Contemporary Applications and of International Relations. Assistant professor Jennifer Keohane is the coordinator of Oral Communication at the University of Baltimore in Maryland. She also wrote Communist Rhetoric and Feminist Voices in Cold War America. Ancient history professor Martijn Icks is the author of The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor. Communications professor Sergei A. Samoilenko is the co-author of the Handbook of Research on Deception, Fake News, and Misinformation Online.


“Character Assassination and Reputation Management: Theory and Applications” is a comprehensive book that delves into the intricate world of character assassination, its impact on individuals and societies, and strategies for reputation management. Written by Eric Shiraev, Martijn Icks, Jennifer Keohane, and Sergei Samoilenko, the book provides an in-depth exploration of the theoretical frameworks and real-world applications related to character assassination.

The book begins by defining character assassination and discussing its historical context. It explores how character attacks have evolved over time, from ancient civilizations to the modern digital age. The authors examine the psychological, social, and political motivations behind character assassination, shedding light on its destructive consequences.

The authors delve into various theoretical perspectives, including social psychology, communication studies, and political science, to provide a comprehensive understanding of character assassination. They explore concepts such as identity manipulation, framing, propaganda, and the role of media in shaping public perception.

Furthermore, the book examines the impact of character assassination on individuals, organizations, and societies. It explores the psychological effects on victims and strategies employed by perpetrators of character attacks. The authors also analyze high-profile cases of character assassination throughout history, offering valuable insights into the dynamics and consequences of such attacks.

In the later sections of the book, the authors address the practical aspects of reputation management. They provide strategies and techniques for individuals and organizations to protect and restore their reputations in the face of character attacks. The book emphasizes the importance of proactive reputation management, crisis communication, and ethical considerations in the digital age.

Overall, “Character Assassination and Reputation Management” is a comprehensive and insightful book that explores the theory and applications of character assassination. The authors provide a deep understanding of the psychological, social, and political aspects of character attacks, along with practical strategies for reputation management.

“Character Assassination and Reputation Management” is an exceptional book that offers a thorough examination of the complex world of character attacks and reputation management. Written by Eric Shiraev, Martijn Icks, Jennifer Keohane, and Sergei Samoilenko, the book provides a comprehensive and well-researched analysis of the theoretical frameworks and practical applications related to character assassination.

One of the standout features of this book is its interdisciplinary approach. The authors draw from various fields, including psychology, communication studies, political science, and media studies, to provide a holistic understanding of character assassination. This multidimensional perspective helps readers grasp the complex dynamics and motivations behind character attacks.

The book is well-structured, starting with a historical overview of character assassination and gradually delving into theoretical frameworks. The authors provide clear explanations of key concepts and theories, making it accessible to both academic and non-academic readers. The inclusion of real-world case studies and examples further enhances the book’s practical relevance.

Moreover, the authors strike a balanced approach by examining both the negative impact of character assassination and strategies for reputation management. They highlight the psychological effects on victims, the ethical implications of character attacks, and the importance of proactive reputation management. This comprehensive perspective enables readers to gain insights into the complexities of managing reputation in today’s digital age.

While the book covers a wide range of topics, some readers may find certain sections more relevant to their interests than others. However, this is largely due to the broad scope of the book, which aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the subject matter.

In conclusion, “Character Assassination and Reputation Management” is a highly informative and thought-provoking book that sheds light on the theory and applications of character attacks. Eric Shiraev, Martijn Icks, Jennifer Keohane, and Sergei Samoilenko deliver a well-researched and engaging analysis, providing readers with valuable insights into the nature of character assassination and strategies for reputation management. This book is an essential resource for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of managing reputation in today’s interconnected world.

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