It also means influencing how people interpret what others say about you. Writing for readers in the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), Pascale Combelles Siegel calls perception management “the stepchild” of military Information Operations (IO). That’s because technology has taken over IO to the point that its former emphasis of perception management has been relegated to a secondary role.
Business and other government agencies have gladly adopted this stepchild as their own. How well they nurture this stepchild makes the difference between success and failure. Joel Garfinkle’s brief four-step outline of the perception management cycle is a good basis for a simple primer on this crucial discipline.
STEP 1: How Do You Think You Are Perceived?
You first need to clearly define how you think others perceive you. This step must come first because any number of factors can skew these observations. Individuals commonly experience self-serving biases. This means attributing success to internal achievement and failure to external obstacles. “Individuals strategically employ the self-serving bias to maintain and protect positive self-views.” (Krusemark, Campbell, & Clementz, 2008, pg. 511) They also experience confirmation bias, which simply means interpreting results in the most favorable manner for their purposes.
When these combine among individuals in an organization, it can result in groupthink – in simplest terms, a culture of “yes” men. When this happens, strongly cohesive teams actually serve their organizations detrimentally. Teams that encourage a productive level of informed dissent and independence have greater immunity to groupthink (Callaway & Esser, 1984). Organizations with particularly strong leaders who promote their own agendas to the team, rather than assigning a subordinate that task, are at particular risk of groupthink (Ahlfinger & Esser, 2001).
STEP 2: How Are You Actually Perceived?
Next, check the accuracy of your organizational self-perception. Surveys traditionally achieve this and extend into Web resources with modern technology. Internet solicitation needs to be unobtrusive, yet eye-catching. Consumers accustomed to websites tend to ignore ostentatious banner ads, but will pay attention to ads that fit into a site’s theme. (Moore, Stammerjohan, & Coulter, 2005).
However, animations on ads rouse site visitors more than distract them, and may get their attention if they are consistent with the site’s theme and, hence, the visitor’s presumed interest (Day, Shyi, & Wang, 2006). In addition, monitor blogs, Facebook and Twitter for unsolicited praise or criticism.
Whole books cover ways to assess public perception of yourself or your organization. The most important thing to remember is by performing this process, you already influence how the public perceives you. If surveys are long and impose needless interruption, respondents will receive more negative impressions of you. Political surveys commonly load semantics to both achieve target results and influence opinions: questions are already biased and seek biased results. Remember to keep questions open-ended, semantics neutral and to allow plenty of room for comments. Doing that already communicates you care what respondents have to say and do not just pigeonhole and tally their responses. You treat them as individuals.
STEP 3: How Do You Want to be Perceived?
This is simple math. What is the difference between your organizational self-perception and the actual public perception of your organization. If they match, that does not mean you need do nothing. It means you need to reinforce that perception. If they do not match, that does not mean you are in trouble, even if they differ tremendously. You have just learned where you are and where you need to be.
Very clearly define how you want public perceptions to change and express that in a story. If you have been perceived as being socially irresponsible and you seek a reputation for social responsibility, acknowledging past failures may be part of that story. That is called framing and it is important because once the public accepts the frame of your organization, they interpret other information to fit that frame.
STEP 4: How Do You Change the Perceptions?
Tell your story. You might have had misplaced priorities, suddenly seen the light and now work better for the public good. That worked for tuna companies in the 1990s. Do consumers see you as a proficient underachiever for some past bad marketing choices? That quickly turns into an underdog story, fighting against some market juggernaut. That would be Apple Computers in the 1990s, just before launching the iMac.
Telling the story involves actions as well as exposition. That can be a corporate sponsorship – depending on your desired demographic you might sponsor a NASCAR crew, a sports team, or a particular charity. It can be product placement in particular programs. It might be something as simple as starting a popular blog and keeping a friendly and responsive presence in social media.
If things have been bad enough, particularly if your concern is individual, you may have to take the leap into full-fledged reputation management. This means going beyond how you frame your own story to distracting audiences from negativity. While this can be effectively achieved, consider it a last resort. It goes beyond manipulating perception to manipulating information. This is much more expensive and much less effective than recovering a positive perception based on a sympathetic acceptance of a story with acknowledged errors and nothing to hide.
James Scott is the CEO of Princeton Corporate Solutions, a corporate globalization and political strategies firm, PCs offers a unique blend of think tank, corporate and governmental communication strategies to expedite the facilitation of long lasting relationship building in these necessary sectors.