The Reality Gap

One of the most commonly heard comments across a corporate board room table when the business is underfire in social media or traditional media is “they don’t have any idea who we are or what we do.” That may be true. It is also equally possible that “they” do know who you are and what you do, but it is the directors around the table who do not.

Most people in business recognise that there can be and often is as gap between perception and reality. A difference between what the organisation does and what other people think it does. Sometimes this matters and sometimes not. It rather depends on who those people are. Organisations tend to talk of “stakeholders” as though they all matter equally. The truth is that to paraphrase George Orwell, all stakeholders matter but some matter more than others.

Perception gaps, differences between what people think you do and what you really do obviously matter. If what you are really doing is “good” then such a gap would suggest a communication problem. This is something which many politicians often say they have.

There is nothing wrong with our policies, they say, it’s poor communication. As policy makers they would say that of course, and as a communicator it’s perhaps not such a surprise that I would say maybe it’s the policy that is wrong.

In 1989 the then Conservative government in the UK insisted that the negativity around the Community Charge policy (the inaccurately but often named “Poll Tax”) was all about not getting the message over. As one of those charged with getting the message over I have to testify that the more we explained the policy, the worse it sounded. The fault was not the communication. It was a classic case of “Don’t kill the messenger!”

In corporate board rooms, particularly of those with really strong corporate cultures and pride in loyalty there is often the same discussion. It’s the perception, not the reality.

But sometimes it is.

“The Reality Gap” methodolgy is something I designed in 1995 (!) to address just such a problem. Fiercely loyal board directors who were convinced that the critics were always wrong. In business as in theatre this is rarely the case, at least not always wrong.

The methodolgy was primarily a communications tool to help determine whether the solution to a problem was to communicate more effectively, or to advise changing the reality. For a while we called it “The Mirror Test,” helping to see yourself as others see you, but it evolved in to The Reality Gap because it was intended to do more than act as a mirror, it was used to diagnose the problem.

The scene for The Reality Gap exercise was set by first carrying out a Stakeholder Audit. Internal and external stakeholders, those identified as the ones who “mattered more” were extensively interviewed to produce a clear understanding of perceptions on overall reputation, brand values, operational performance and socio-economic and political issues relevant to the achievement of the business plan.

This was followed by an Analysis exercise to determine which perceptions mattered most and why.

The next step was to compare the perceptions identified to the reality of what was really happening. the differences between them were the key reality gaps, but the test went further than that by running all of these thoughts and conclusions through a “5Ps” filter.

We asked what the PURPOSE was – of the organisation and of the activity under the spotlight. What did the businesswant to achieve from what it was doing and why.

We asked what the PROMISE made to stakeholders had been, through advertising, marketing, communications and word of mouth. This was an analysis of both what we thought we were promising and what others thought we had promised, and again an assessment of the reality gaps.

Thirdly we asked about PRACTICE, what we had delivered on the promises made in terms of product, service, behaviours, employment, investor relations, neighbourliness, community and socirty. This was intentionally broad and far reasching but did relate back to the research and the key issues identified.

We then asked about PEOPLE, principally “our” people. What they knew, said and did. The question was whether they had understood the purpose and promise and not only delivered the right practice, but wanted to and for the right reasons.

Lastly we asked about PREJUDICE. This wasa fifth “P” added on sometime during the next few years as the model was refined. Questioning prejudice, or what people inside and outside the business thought they knew based on preconceptions and not reality was an essential extra layer of work to go beyond the is it perception or reality questions because as that first comment in the board room – why don’t people understand us – suggested, life is often if not invariably unfair.

The analysis of the “5Ps” helped to identify whether the problem was one of the message or the messenger, or the reality or the perception and so whether the solution was to communicate more effectively to change a negative perception of a positive reality, to change practice or purpose bewcause there was a negative perception of a negative reality, or whether the consequences of the reality gap were nevertyheless not so bad for business as to be subject to change and then the challenge for communicators woukld be to mitigate the negative perception, rather than attempt to change it or the reality.

Simples eh?

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