Perception vs. RealityI’ve been known to “occasionally” jump on my soapbox to rail against everything from students’ inability to write coherent sentences to public transit systems’ inability to provide anything vaguely resembling “service.”

I’ve also been “gently” encouraged to “ease up on your expectations, Kirk” by any number of professional colleagues…as well as students.

Unh-unh. Not gonna happen.

My Public Relations Concentration students (and others) at Curry College have gotten used to seeing circles, underlines, question marks, and various other editorial notations including snarky comments on virtually every paper that they send my way.

Newspapers and other media have become inured to my frequent “letter to the editor” assaults, most of the time wisely choosing to ignore my comments on ethical misbehavior and/or lack of transparency in governmental or business affairs.

To answer the unasked question, “No, I don’t think the world is going to crash and burn.”

What I do think is that perceptions… fueled by expectations… can and will lead to a fascinating assortment of public relations challenges that we, as PR professionals, will have to deal with.

Perception is, in the eyes and mind of the beholder, reality.

I love, when we are discussing a current dilemma in my “Principles of PR” class, to throw out the simple but maddening… “Is this a problem? What would you do?”

The panicked look on most faces as they feverishly leaf through the textbook says it all, and, inevitably, one brave soul will meekly ask, “What page is the answer on?”

To which I respond… “It’s not.”

Then I explain (for the bazillionth time) that that is the beauty and the challenge of public relations.

Our job is to be acutely aware of public perceptions of our client or employer and to be prepared to explain, clarify… or defend… our mission/reason for being.

What this means is that we must also be acutely aware of the realities of that client’s or employer’s operations.

  • What’s really going on in that building? (I used to work in a building surrounded by chain-link fences with barbed wire coils at the top and frosted windows all around and folks with guns at every entrance.)
  • What’s really in that liquid that’s seeping into the local water supply? (My first media call at one company was from a local reporter wanting to know if we were still dumping gunk into the stream behind one of our facilities…We weren’t. Stopped two years before. Didn’t tell anyone.)
  • What’s really the cost of producing that widget? (Once worked for a manufacturer that went from a reportedly multi-million-dollar profitability to a seriously-negative-millions-of-dollars deficit.)

The list goes on.

Things we think have been resolved keep bubbling back to the surface to be dealt with yet again. And smug complacency flies out the window with gusto.

Our challenge as communicators is to do just that…communicate.

Our neighbors don’t know what we’re doing inside our wonderfully-modern-looking factory walls. All they know is they hear bumps and clangs in the night, or they smell odd odors wafting from our ventilators.

Or maybe our business is such that we can’t tell them exactly what’s going on (worked for someone like that).

If we’re serious, though, about our roles as the conduit between the internal “us” and the external “them,” we have to find a satisfactory middle ground that fosters understanding.

There are no “how-to” manuals for this, although I frequently turn to Ivy Lee’s “Declaration of Principles” for guidance (or reassurance that I’m on the right path).

The bottom line is that successful public relations practice demands acknowledgement of perceptions and clarification of reality.

It’s as simple…and as complicated…as that.

Image: UW Digital Collections via Flickr, CC2.0

Kirk Hazlett

Kirk Hazlett

Professor at Curry College
Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, holds the position of Associate Professor, Communication/ Public Relations, at Curry College. He also is a member of the Public Relations Society of America's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. Kirk has 35+ years' federal government and nonprofit organization PR experience, followed by nearly 10 years' undergraduate- and graduate-level college teaching experience. Some of the organizations he has counseled include the Blood Bank of Hawaii, Medical Area Service Corporation and Boston Harborfest. He blogs at A Professor's Thoughts.
Kirk Hazlett