Perception is everything – especially in the world of Public Relations. This week, I was away on vacation so my TA, Adam, stepped in to teach. Afterwards, we debriefed about class and what the students were buzzing about this week.
Image via New York Daily News
Not unlike most of the world last week, my students were consumed with #TheDress controversy. For most people, the question about the color of the dress seemed odd at first. Seen with your own eyes, the colors of the dress are as black and white (or black and blue, in this case) as a decision can be.
But quite quickly, it became clear that not everyone’s perception of the dress was the same. For the next few days, you couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking you what color you thought the dress was. It sparked everything from lengthy articles on Wired exploring the scientific reasoning behind why people saw two different colors, to an article on Buzzfeed listing “17 Things Only People Who See The Blue Dress Will Understand.”
Putting all the hoopla aside about this recent social media phenomenon, this topic actually has a significant PR lesson for my students and people at every level in the field of PR. As PR professionals, a large part of our job is shaping the public’s perception around a particular company, product and/or issue. It is our responsibility to use the materials and channels available to make sure our clients’ message is perceived a specific way by the target audience. Today, we are fortunate to have the advancements of social media and the internet to help make the message have a bigger impact, but one simple fact still remains: perception is ultimately dictated not by you, but by your audience.
Perceptions are not universal – they are personal, and in cases like this, they can be deeply divided. “The dress” reminds us that when working with a client, you control the message as best you can – but your audience will be the ultimate judge of your success or failure (and in this case “what they see”).
At the end of the day, despite how much you plan and prepare, there is always the chance that a handful of people will interpret something in a way your client did not intend. In order to handle these situations, should they arise, it’s important to consider a wide variety of reactions in the planning phase. Examine the complexity of your audience, listening to their past perceptions on similar campaigns or issues. Play “devil’s advocate,” take yourself out of your PR shoes and consider, “what are the other ways this could be interpreted?”
A good PR professional knows that in everything they create – a desire to overly control a perception can be not only fruitless, but it can backfire quickly. Thinking about a situation with a diverse array of perspectives can not only help prepare you should something go wrong, but also creates a clearer, more refined message and voice.
This blog post is part of larger series, ‘Cuse Chronicles by a CEO, from PAN President & Founder, Philip A. Nardone, Jr., as he chronicles his experience teaching two capstones classes at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.