When perception becomes reality
By Angela Bensemann, Director Halo Communications
In an environment where perception quickly becomes reality, issues management is key. Identifying risks and issues early is crucial to the smooth running of your project.
Even then you can’t possibly second guess every scenario, but experience helps you avoid the obvious pitfalls. Just try chopping down a tree, putting down a dangerous dog, closing hospitals, opening prisons etc without a damn good reason for doing so.
The public sector is a minefield of issues and it’s often difficult to keep reality in check as bad news stories are just way more interesting to read (and to write). Perception can quickly overtake reality.
There is never a dull moment, but you do find yourself working in some highly charged situations.
I’ve worked on various projects of unpopularity, here’s a couple of examples.
Back in the day in the health sector we were closing intellectual disability institutions and country hospitals. Rationalisation of services and centralising areas of medical excellence looked all very good on paper, but communities weren’t having a bar of it.
No matter how hard we tried it was impossible to convince small communities or parents of vulnerable children that the motives were anything other than cost cutting.
The perception was that health authorities were full of faceless bureaucrats just trying to save money.
The reality is the majority of people working in health view it as a vocation, they do it for the love – they have a passion for improving health outcomes and really do want the best for communities.
But there are some hard realities we face as a small country – people are living longer, babies born prematurely or with significant issues are expected to not just live, but to thrive. Once deadly diseases or chronic conditions can now be managed with expensive interventions.
Tough decisions are made every day and sometimes the best you can hope for is that people can see the impossibility of the decisions that need to be made and can get involved in the decision-making process.
My stint in the justice sector wasn’t much more joyful. As a media manager for several years I was always involved in some sort of firefighting and it was a rare luxury to be on the front foot and able to talk about some good news rehabilitation successes or new programmes making a real difference to re-offending.
The perception was that things were in a constant state of chaos. Reality: most of the time things were going well but whenever they weren’t it was something so shocking it would ensure a front-page lead – perception being that was always the case.
Putting things right
Changing perceptions and getting the facts out there can be a long slow process. It takes a lot of time and effort to re-build relationships and trust with the community, the media or others within the sector. It’s much easier to start out on the right foot and avoiding having to rebuild a reputation.
Often times people are inherently suspicious of public sector entities and big corporates so don’t give them cause to reconfirm their misconceptions.
Make the effort to:
• be transparent
• own it when it goes wrong
• put things right before they grow legs
• don’t try to spin it – it won’t work, people are not stupid
• do what you say you’ll do – when you say you’ll do it
• build partnerships, relationships and bridges
• celebrate your successes together
…that way you’ll create new perceptions based on reality.