The Power of Perception and the Press

There is an apothegm that states “Perception is reality.” In other words, people act and react based on what they perceive, irrespective of a greater empirical reality. An example would be someone treading water when the depth is only four feet, because they believe it to be deeper. (I’ve done this, and I’d like to believe it’s more than just a personal character flaw.)

Some people perceive that they have no chance, so they never try. Others perceive that there’s always help, and they never stop trying.

Of the myriad influences on human behavior, perception is probably the one most subject to manipulation. The advertising industry is dedicated to such contortions, from The Marlboro Man to bottled water (New York city tap water regularly scores highest in blind tastes tests with bottled water). There’s “free range chicken,” and skinny models used to sell everything from automobiles to vodka.

I’ve written before that I believe the current economic circumstances are largely perceptual. There is a great deal of money around and some incredible bargains. Unemployment approaches 10% (5% is normal and really represents zero, since these are unemployable people by their own choice or through other circumstances). That means that 90% of the eligible population is employed. Once the perception is pervasive that the worst is behind us (and, believe me, no one in government or academia has a clue about what metrics make sense), the economy will rebound. I’m betting it’s sooner, not later.

Any number of causes, both legitimate and bogus, are fostered and exacerbated by stroking perception, not necessarily by examining empirical evidence. I don’t care whether it’s the threat of the swine virus, global warming, recycling, the Loch Ness Monster, home schooling, or the chances of being hit (again) by a wandering meteor. We are so self-absorbed that we seem to think that if something is happening during our lifetimes it is unprecedented, or must be our fault, or must be fixed by us. That is our perception. The thought that we just might be a part of larger, immutable trends is abhorrent. Our perception is that we are the center of the universe.

The press is often the initiator and instigator of these causes, no longer simply the reporter. Which brings me to last night.

President Obama’s news conference in prime time last night, was the least contentious, least incisive, least investigative in my entire memory, even for a new President. It was a tea party with visitors asking to pass the cucumber sandwiches and the host maintaining jovial conversation as he poured and asked, “One lump or two?”

At one point, a reporter for the New York Times, no less, asked a series of “what kind of tree are you” questions, highlighted by what most “enchanted” the President. It was one of these dull company picnics where the employees sit around watching the boss play cards with his wife.

Don’t misunderstand, for all our sakes, I hope President Obama is a raging success. He’s done pretty well thus far. But where is the question about whether Senator Arlen Spector changing parties abruptly is merely trying to perpetuate his election at any cost, ethics aside? What about asking, “Will you take military action if the Pakistani government falls and nuclear arms are plundered?” Or what about, “Would you like to apologize publicly here for the 747 that caused panic in New York, and who will be fired because of it?” And by the way, who on your staff vetted all those appointees who forgot to pay their taxes?

Perceptions are fickle, and both the broadcast and print press aren’t helping, in that they are increasingly taking political “sides” and positions on contemporary issues, outside of the editorial pages. It’s no wonder that newspapers are failing across the country. They are no longer doing their job. Broadcast news is scarcely better.

What perceptions are you validating or invalidating, and what perceptions are you creating and sustaining with your clients, your prospects, and yourself? Sometimes you have to ensure you are truly living in reality.

© Alan Weiss 2009. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “The Power of Perception and the Press

  1. Obama is too clever for most of the lot of Washington journalists, and it took him less than 100 days 8) to subjugate them fully.

    When your job is to report on the President and you perceive there is a huge risk of not being granted any answer or interview if you “misbehave” (i.e. ask the wrong question, or express the wrong opinion), it is just normal that you decide to keep your head down…

  2. I’m beginning to think that there is opprobrium from colleagues if you try to throw a fastball at the President. As Chris Matthews incredibly stated, “It’s our job to help him to succeed.”

  3. If perception is reality (and I believe this to be true) then the interview indeed could be exactly what’s needed. I have completely removed myself from watching national TV news, and selectively pick most stories from online sources (both reputable and not) just for the contrast. If the reporters actually made it through a whole segment without raising our fears any further, I’d say that’s some kind of success.

    We definitely need answers to the questions you’ve posed (and many others) but perhaps we need to just take a collective breath, see that the world is not crashing down around our ears, and that the president can indeed sit down for tea and cakes without someone pushing him into a bunker. The collective economy may be in the tank, but that should not give us as individuals pause or make us rethink our overall strategies of success. Perception may be reality, but timing is still everything.

  4. Well said. The collective economy is not in the tank. Look around: There are people at restaurants, people traveling, people going about their business. Can you buy two boats, three TVs and a million dollar home on a $200,000 income? No, nor should you ever have done so, even if some lunatic banker loaned you the money.

    There is a thin line between Paul Revere and Chicken Little.

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