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Perception is reality? I say reality is perception!

Ever since learning about the philosophical debate of perception vs. reality in philosophy class years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the topic and its applications across many areas of our lives. According to the teacher, it all started with George Berkeley, who in 1710 started a discussion around sensory perceptions that has over the years been referred to as this now famous question:

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

That debate, of whether something that is not physically perceived actually happens or not, has since grown in scope and significance, drawing in other philosophers as well as the scientific community, including such notable thinkers as Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. And the topic is of course not limited to Western philosophy – it also exists in Buddhism, Hinduism and other philosophies and religions.

It was many years later, in the 1980’s to be exact, that this debate took on a whole new meaning when the American political strategist Lee Atwater said simply and succinctly: “perception is reality”. What had been practiced for years in the worlds of marketing, communications and politics was now more clearly and openly proclaimed: reality matters less than people’s perceptions of it, especially when it comes to selling products and politicians.

Reality vs. perception in the world of reputation management

A decade later, when I started working in the field of corporate branding, I was learning the art of helping companies identify and articulate their true identities – and that had a lot more to do with reality than perceptions. But later on, as I expanded my field to include reputation management, I found myself often using Atwater’s famous truism. Lately, though I started asking myself: does it still hold true in today’s world?

There’s no doubt that with the advent of social media, reality has become a lot harder to hide – or in other words information on “negative reality” that company bosses aren’t aware of or wish to contain is a lot harder to keep secret. Be it tweets from rogue employees, YoutTube videos that go viral or Facebook boycott campaigns – more and more companies are finding that facts are often revealed to large segments of the public quickly and unexpectedly. And this is not just limited to unhappy employees or customers venting on social media – it’s also a result of more confident and competent actions these days by NGOs, whistleblowers and law enforcement agencies. In all these cases, social media of course still play a crucial role – spreading the story fast and far, making any containment attempts doomed to failure.

When one sees these developments, and the impact of the VW Dieselgate scandal on the company’s reputation and market valuation, surely it’s fair to ask: is it really worth it for companies to cheat, engage in dubious practices, mistreat employees or customers and so on, in the hope that “reality” will never be revealed and hurt “perceptions”? It could be argued that for every VW there’s a dozen other automakers that engage in similar practices but simply never got caught, and whose reputations therefore never suffered – but don’t these cases show that even if the truth doesn’t come out, the risk is just too great?

Shaping reality is harder than shaping perceptions

The answer of course is that it’s more complex than that. Reality is not black and white, and can often be told in different ways by different parties. Reality in organizations often involves many people that cannot be fully controlled by, and many actions that cannot be fully known to, those in charge. But one thing is certain: while many businesses see the concept of reputation management as a perception-shaping exercise, the truth (pardon the pun) of the matter is that the weight is shifting towards spotting and fixing “bad reality” wherever in the organization it may lurk. It’s good practice to have crisis management plans in place, but companies will increasingly find that they cannot build and protect reputations without proactively trying to improve the reality of their businesses – from the quality of the products and the integrity of the business, to the way they treat stakeholders and keep their promises.

I still admire George Berkeley for stating that “to be is to be perceived” as early as the 18th century. But I propose a new motto for corporate reputation management in the 21st century: reality is perception. Whatever you and your company do will eventually be known to the outside world and will shape people’s perceptions of you. This doesn’t mean that it’s no longer important to consider stakeholder perceptions – it is, in order to better understand their expectations from you as a business, and the gaps between their perceptions and your reality. But it does mean you should focus on making your reality better, and better known – rather than on creating false perceptions. Take this to heart, and you’ll have a better chance of enjoying a good reputation and a successful business.

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