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The Perception Trap

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by Dan Pollard

As communicators, the concept of perception is very much at the heart of what we do. We monitor perceptions, we seek to shape and even change perceptions. But perceptions can be tough to shift.

In politics, there’s a widely accepted truism that the most powerful messages are the ones that reinforce what people already think. Most election campaigns are built around this principle.Two recent examples from Australian politics perfectly illustrate this point: Tony Abbott’s wink and Mark Latham’s handshake. The fact that these incidents can be described so briefly and still be understood illustrates their resonance. The reason both have stuck in the public consciousness is that they perfectly summed up a perception that much of the public had about each of the people involved.

The public image of Latham was aggressive, volatile and combative. When he violently shook John Howard’s hand as they crossed over during media interviews, it crystallised that perception of aggression.

Similarly, Tony Abbott’s wink played into the ongoing issues he has had engaging with female voters. His supporters might call it a storm in a tea cup, but the reason this moment was replayed, debated and discussed for weeks afterwards was because it was seem as confirmation of a an existing public view These moments are so damaging because the first thought that pops into people’s minds is, “I knew it!” – and their perception hardens like concrete.

The same applies to corporates and other organisations. Shifting a perception can take years of painstaking hard work. But it might take just one, horrible moment to lock one in. Top tips for managing perception:

1. Perception must be based in reality – If the image being portrayed does not match people’s experience, it will not resonate.

2. Responsibility starts at the bottom and goes all the way to the top – Everyone needs to understand that public perceptions are shaped by everyone in the organisation.

3. Goodwill builds slowly, but can evaporate quickly – Keep on top of any issue that could negatively impact perception. A rapid, but well thought out response is critical.

4. Little things do add up – Although a big crisis is more dramatic and demands attention, a succession of smaller issues can be just as damaging. It does pay to sweat the small stuff.

5. Have a plan – Good perception management doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a considered, strategic approach that is integrated broadly across the business.