The Power of Perception

Welcome back!
Here we are right in the middle of those 'lazy hazy crazy days of summer'. Laura and I have been busy with trips to New York, Cape Breton and St. John's, Newfoundland - mixing seminars with a few days off in each wonderful location as we go.
And what a summer it has been! The heat and humidity have featured prominently so far. I, for one, will not complain - as I only have to think of January in Ottawa to remember what cold is like. I have even managed to squeeze in a few rounds of golf and am somewhat surprised that my game is not as bad as I had feared. Although Phil Mickelson has no worries there [his win at The Open was a must-see in our household.]
In this posting I want to examine the perceptions as we look at recent events - the Lac Megantic train derailment; the Royal birth and the new revelations about New York Mayoralty candidate Anthony Weiner.
Managing Perceptions
The Oxford Dictionary defines perception as: "the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses". It's not necessarily logical, but 'perception is reality' has a powerful impact in the public sphere.
After the nightmare of the Lac Mégantic train derailment and the angry aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial, the birth of Will and Kate's new son, certainly lifts the mood and gives everyone a much-needed happy distraction to all that bad news.
And, on top of that, it's another Brit who has come to the rescue as Paul McCartney offers up to 1000 tickets to the people of Lac Megantic for his Quebec City concert on the Plains of Abraham tonight [ironically the site of the British victory over French forces in 1759.] The first time Macca played there in 2008, a straggling group of protesters tried to make an issue out of it. For tonight's concert, there is not only no sign of protest, but the people of Quebec have clearly taken to McCartney as never before. Could it be partially due to a magnanimous offer from Sir Paul? It's an excellent example of managing perceptions- whether intended or not.
How Will and Kate Managed Perceptions 
You've got to hand it to Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge who have their own style and sense of what is appropriate. It was on full display today as they managed the media and public fascination with the birth of their first born. In the future King's debut on the front steps of St. Mary's Hospital, they were able to communicate some key messages in their photo-op.

1. Their style is so informal and down-to-earth. From their casual (blue) clothes and easy-going manner (under a firestorm of flash cameras and shouted questions) to the Prince strapping in his son into the car and then getting behind the wheel himself and driving off, they did it all so effortlessly and without affectation.
So thanks to the Brits for giving us ...The Open...Paul McCartney and the Royal birth - a respite from the bad news, disasters and problems surrounding us.

2. Their handling of the media scrum was low-key, upbeat and genuine in tone and message. Politicians could learn a few lessons from that alone.
3. Although we are all aware that there are Royal handlers lurking behind the scenes, the Royal couple give the impression that they are the ones deciding what they want to do and how they want to do it.
4. They appreciated what the entire matter meant to the people and they delivered it effortlessly. Diana's ring was notable on Kate's finger as she proudly held her new son. A 'tear-in-the-eye' moment that was telling but not over-played. Just the perfect touch from a young couple who seem to get what it's all about.
Although it would have been historic if a daughter had been born (thus becoming the first female to benefit from the new Laws of Succession to the throne) nevertheless a healthy child is always a cause for joy - Royals or not. We can only wish him a long, healthy and happy life.
The Lac Megantic Train - and Perception- Disaster
The Lac Megantic Quebec explosion -which killed fifty people in a horrific disaster - was also a classic perception disaster. After four days, the Chair of the MM&A Railway company - Edward Burkhardt showed up and proceeded to ad lib (in English) his way into hot water (first blaming the volunteer firemen and then hanging his engineer out to dry) and breeding even more resentment as he (unintentionally) smiled his way through a nightmare media encounter . Although the video of him laughing while talking to someone when he thought he was off-camera was also damaging to the perception of caring.
I admire him, at least, for having the guts - and yes, the temerity - to show up without handlers and public relations advisers to face the media and the angry residents. He was completely ill-advised in the way he went about it, however, and it has real consequences for the company down the road.
For all CEOs out there who may find themselves in a similar nightmare...please don't manage your communications this way. There are professionals - not intended as a commercial - who can help you do it right. You have to manage both the facts and the perception of you and your company's values. The atmosphere will be angry, noisy, accusatory and hostile, so you need to know your messages, deliver them convincingly, manage the media relations and the community relations. It's not a job for one man with little experience at communicating in such a nightmare.
My comments on that - and other communications issues - here on CFRA's Madeley in the Morning with  guest host Mark Sutcliffe.
Just when you thought it was safe to run for Mayor...along comes 'Carlos Danger'
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner, after humiliating himself and his wife, Huma Abedin, by tweeting photos of his private parts (and lying about it) has now been revealed to have continued to engage in lewd online 'chats' even after his resignation from Congress in 2011. Will this mean the end of his New York Mayoralty bid? Possibly. His decision to hold a joint news conference with his wife was the right one - in that he hoped to change public perception. He also realized that it was essential for the public to hear directly from Huma and not just to watch their standing awkwardly beside him. His public apology was vague in terms of the timeline involved in his indiscretions but did admit that they continued after his humiliating resignation from Congress.
That is very significant in terms of assessing his judgment and character. What kind of judgment does it imply that he continued to do these damaging and destructive things after his resignation? The public will forgive you once, but if it's true that he kept this sick uh...hobby...going after his resignation, then it's hard to see them giving him another pass on this. However, stranger things have happened - witness the recent election of disgraced former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.
Huma to the Rescue
However, this key line from Huma Abedin's statement was critical to his survival chances: "We discussed all of this before Anthony decided to run for mayor, so really what I want to say is I love him, I have forgiven him, I believe in him, and as we have said from the beginning, we are moving forward." She learned well from her former boss, Bill Clinton - positioning it as an issue just between them. It's a slim chance, but it could be enough to hang on. The reality is that he has seven weeks left in the primary race to put distance to this, so it ain't over yet.
Which leaves us with the other formerly disgraced New York politico...Elliott Spitzer
Even New Yorkers who are otherwise very forgiving will have trouble with this. Former Gov. Elliott Spitzer - whose run for City Comptroller is looking very good - seems to understand that the bargain for forgiveness is no repetition - something that Bill Clinton had to learn the hard way. Noticeably absent from the public eye is Hilda Wall Spitzer, his long-suffering wife, while Huma has been active -recently raising $150,000 from friends of Hilary and campaigning alongside him. She will have to continue that, or it will be a sign that she hasn't really forgiven him. 
Perception is powerful in politics, in royalty, in entertainment and, yes, in responding to disasters.

Until next time....

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