Perception is nine tenths of the law

Using one of football’s oldest wives’ tales that possession is nine tenths of the law – which has been blown apart by Leicester City’s Premier League title triumph this month – I’m going to tackle a subject which until recently I cared very little about: perception.

The concept of a PR guy that isn’t interested in perception is hard to digest isn’t it? It’s hypocritical, contradictory and in a sense downright useless as managing perceptions through communications is what I’m passionate about doing.

Yet I’ve always found it quite hard to care too much about how others perceive me. There’s a stubborn part of me that says: ‘you’re welcome to that opinion but unless I’m coming across as rude, aggressive, insulting or condescending I’m not too bothered about changing.’

I realised recently that I’m actually wrong – in fact I’m way out. Perception definitely matters. It doesn’t necessarily define you and I’m not saying you should agree with everything people think of you. However, why would you not take that feedback on board and think about why people think what they do?

Then I saw her face. Now I’m a perceiver

Perceptions are like judgements and as we know judgements are not necessarily based on knowledge. For me that’s always been the problem. You don’t know me so why would I care what you think about me.

Yet I will quite happily talk to a client and prospect about how the public’s perception of them is not where it should be and advise on how this can be changed. I’m not saying they need to change who they are and what they do – just how they communicate and who they should be talking to in order to change or manage that perception.

More often than not when you go through that process you realise the perceptions are rarely based on utter fiction. For example:

Brand: “People think we’re an x company when actually we’re a y brand.”

Me: “But you’ve been selling x since the 1960s and decided you were a y brand five years ago.”

I’m not denying that your brand has evolved and that the perception is in anyway misinformed or unfair. It’s more a case of – you must get it, please get it, why don't you get it?

So I started thinking well why might people perceive certain things about me and does it actually matter that they have these perceptions?


I made up a word. Another foul and contemptuous trait in a so called communications professional. The point is that whether you know in your heart that someone’s perception of you is wrong, once you consider the above scenario and think, ‘well why do they think that?’, you will probably realise that they’ve got a point.

Human beings are not brands yet I realise I’m dangerously close to asking you to apply brand theory to yourself. It’s more a case of opening up a little bit. I used to think not caring was the chilled out thing to do. It’s actually more refreshing and far less uptight if you welcome the feedback of the world around you.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking ‘yeah I guess I do that. Why do I do that?’. It’s about understanding the impact your actions have on others around you and how they perceive your behaviour. Or how it makes them perceive what’s right and wrong based on the example you set.

So, the next time someone says something about your actions that takes you by surprise – if you think ‘yeah who cares what you think?’ you are definitely not the relaxed one. You’re the person who isn’t accepting a perception that you’ve created. And if you don’t like it, then maybe you need to work at changing it.

Joe McNamara

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search