The Power of Perception Over Reality

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Perception and reality are not automatically the same. And often perception packs more punch than reality, as the presumptive presidential candidates learned in recent days.

Former President Bill Clinton trots across an airport tarmac to chat with Attorney General Loretta Lynch who is on the threshold of deciding whether to indict Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump, already suspected of sympathies with white supremacists, sends a tweet bearing an image viewed by many as anti-Semitic.

Bill Clinton said he just exchanged pleasantries with Lynch. Trump denied being anti-Semitic, noting his son-in-law is Jewish. Both claims may be true, but neither is very believable. Perceptions overrule reality.

There is a shortage of trust in American politics today, so perceptions of wrongdoing or tone deaf behavior have fertile soil to sprout regardless of reality.

Perceptions don’t just pertain to incidental behavior. Hillary Clinton suffers from long-term suspicion that she has played fast and loose with the rules, including use of a private email account and server while secretary of state. FBI Director James Comey’s statement excusing Clinton from a criminal charge, but accusing her for carelessly handling classified material only added to long-held perceptions about her.

The power of perception to cloud a reputation or tarnish a good act cannot be denied. Yet, leaders plod along without thinking of how their actions might be perceived as opposed to how they are intended. Pleading ignorance or lamely saying you were misunderstood doesn’t cut you much slack. In fact, it may  deepen perceptions you are a lunkhead.

Wishing people who hold negative perceptions could know the “truth” is much like pinning your hopes on miracles or the tooth fairy.

The advent of social media has raised the stakes of thoughtless or clueless behavior. What might have eluded the traditional media rarely escapes the ever-peering eye of social media, as PBS discovered when it failed to note it was inserting footage from previous Fourth of July fireworks displays into its broadcast of this year’s Capitol celebration that occurred under ominous clouds. No big deal, but it still produced a news cycle full of stories about the “deception."

You don’t need a degree in psychology to know perceptions can crowd out reality in people’s minds. Perceptions have a habit of becoming their own reality. Chronic perceptions ossify into major barriers for making a fresh impression. Think of how hard it will be to convince people that Congress can be productive.

Building trust is hard enough. Don’t make it harder by leaving behind perceptions that undermine trustworthiness. You may never have a chance to climb out of the hole you dig for yourself.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

Do you read me?

How simple should our prose be? Put your writing to the readability test. As the authors of public affairs materials — fact sheets, news releases, policy papers and more — we are given the assignment of being comprehensive while being clear and concise. Simple is hard.

Professional writers often get caught walking the “readability” tightrope, balancing between being “too complicated” and accused of “dumbing it down.” Keeping the audience in mind always is the best gauge. That always will help in deciding the level of detail and complexity you may get away with in any document.

Of course, there is the Flesch-Kinkaid two-tier scale of readability developed by the military in the 1970s. The Reading Ease score indicates how easy a text is to read. A high score implies an easy text. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade level indicates the grade a person will have to have reached to understand the text. 

The scoring goes something like this: 

•  90.0–100.0: Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student;

•  60.0–70.0; Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students; and 

•  0.0–30.0: Best understood by university graduates.

Trust in Media Dips But Other Institutions Lag Behind

Johnny Carson first gained notoriety in 1957 when he hosted a game show called “Who Do You Trust?” If some of our important public institutions were contestants on that show today, chances are they’d be judged as losers.

To put it bluntly, the public is grumpy. Americans are growing more distrustful of our public institutions. In fact, attitudes about the news media are at an all-time low in most categories measure during the past 25 years by the Pew Research Center.

And the media fares better than our other important organizations such a state and federal governments, business and Congress.

A Pew survey released in September concluded the press is seen as:

  • Lacking in fairness (77 percent);
  • Unwilling to admit mistakes (72 percent):
  • Perpetrating inaccurate reporting (66 percent); as well as
  • Engaging in political bias (63 percent).

The Pew Research Center’s first surveyed the public on news attitudes in 1985, Back then, a majority of respondents said that news organizations were often influenced by powerful people and organizations (53 percent) and tended to favor one side (53 percent).

Reputation is a Journey, Not a Pit Stop

Johnson & Johnson may have to use some of its Band-aids to fix its bruised reputation concerning recent faulty product recalls.Johnson & Johnson, the company held on a pedestal for its unequivocal, bold response to tainted Tylenol in the 1980s, is being hauled back in front of Congress to defend its current record on faulty product recalls. It serves as a reminder that maintaining your reputation is a journey, not a pit stop.

The company in recent months has engaged in a phantom recall of Motrin and recalled over-the-counter drugs such as liquid Tylenol, millions of contact lenses and tens of thousands of artificial hips, all made by separate units of Johnson & Johnson.