Mistrust in the Marketplace

Executive Speeches, April-May 2002 | Go to article overview

Mistrust in the Marketplace


I doubt that I can bring many new insights to this esteemed crowd of image-making and communications professionals but I'll try. And I do love this subject. I might have entitled these remarks: "Fighting against perceptions that just won't go away". Because that's the problem at hand.

I've seen the chemical industry from the outside and I've seen it from the inside. It's a lot different and a lot better inside.

One of my most interesting experiences was working with BP Chemicals in London to try to redefine the industry--a program to which I devoted several months of my life, working with Brian Sanderson who was then CEO. He was a prince of a guy to work with but I don't think we got very far down the chosen path.

I'll return to that project in a minute but meanwhile I'm interested to see that the campaign for chemicals goes on, because--I hope you all realize--it's a rolling crusade that will never be completed.

1. INTRODUCTION

Those of you who have watched the popularity of big business decline steadily in the public perception must wonder whether it is simply too late to do anything about it. I hope to demonstrate that it is not too late. In fact working against unfair attitudes and perceptions is most crucial when that popularity curve is going south. With 21st century communications at our fingertips, the game is getting a lot more sophisticated and a lot more complicated.

Of course some perceptions you can do nothing about, but some you can--and must--influence. Bashing big business--and particularly the chemical industry--has been a national pastime in most of the world for decades. And ironically, despite the presence of benign chemicals in the very fabric of modern life, the bashing continues to thrive, I needn't tell you.

What we're talking about here--if I may employ a much over-used concept--is a classic case of perceptions versus reality, and how the perceptions become reality if we don't step in quickly with opposing measures and messages.

2. FORMING PERCEPTIONS

Let me make a detour here for a few minutes and look at what we know about perceptions--how they are formed and how they can sometimes be attacked and changed. It's important to understand something about perceptions if we are to have any hope of influencing them.

I picked up this interest in perceptions at Burson-Marsteller six or seven years ago when B-M felt it had a problem similar to yours: they were operating in a business that had a ranking in the popularity polls down around dentistry, the airlines, and ethnic cleansing. It was called international public relations. It might have been better off than chemicals, but only just.

In fact at about this time, in the mid-1990s--which also happened to be the time of the war in Bosnia --there was a New Yorker magazine cartoon showing six leaders of the Ku Klux Klan sitting around a table with the Imperial Wizard, all dressed up in their hoods and bedsheets, and the Imperial Wizard says, "Hmmm. Ethnic cleansing. I like the sound of it. Find out who does their PR." I thought that summed up the PR industry's problem pretty well.

In the B-M case the objective was to cleanse the company of the dodgy reputation that PR had acquired for itself over many years of earnest dedication. As some of you may recall, the geniuses at B-M in New York decided they would break ranks from the profession, get out of PR altogether and create a whole new business concept that they would then own. And they called it "perception management", apparently not realizing that that sounded even more sinister than "public relations". The agency would do basically the same thing as before but under the guise of a new profession, and everyone would be fooled. And then they could make even more money from their clients.

The former B-M Chairman Jim Lindheim went around Europe with an aggressive speech that began: "I believe more money and time is wasted on public relations than possibly any other function in the business world. …

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