1. Begin by having a reputation for something conventionally positive, which enables you to speak your mind in risky ways beyond your remit.
2. It follows that you will eventually offend a significant swathe of the population, but be sure that you explicitly signal those in whose name you claim to speak. In other words, strategically polarize the audience to your advantage.
3. But be sure that over time you adapt your message to attitude change, so that you continue to polarize in just the right way. This invariably involves massaging the original meanings of crucial terms in your message to create just the right level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, as the occasion demands.
4. It helps to write a lot so as to present this shift as seamlessly as possible. A diary is especially good at portraying self-consistency and a sense of purpose across the vicissitudes of events, over which one has no substantial control.
Paradigm case? UK Labour politician, Tony Benn. Over a political career that spanned more than a half-century, he was always just ‘radical’ enough to keep self-affirmed radicals of the time engaged but never too radical that he dropped off the political radar entirely. The presence of a continuous self-narrative throughout created the appearance of a ‘man of principle’.
Others may wish to reach other judgements about this life strategy, but in Benn’s case it resulted in a soft landing at death, so that the obituaries waxed nostalgic about what might have been rather than focusing on what in retrospect look like a bull-headed refusal to see the political possibilities that were opened up by admitting error.
And that’s the point of my calling this post a ‘radical’s guide to long-term reputation management’. Benn was dead wrong on so many things, yet his reputation survives.
(I am writing this partly because the ‘Blue Labour’ people who track UKIP’s ‘Little England’ policies with inordinate interest may be tempted to revive the spectre of Tony Benn.)