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1 June 2013

The Art of Perception

Tag(s): Marketing, People
Bob Leaf has been at the forefront of the Public Relations (PR) industry for 50 years. The former international CEO of Burson-Marsteller and one of the all-time experts in international PR has chronicled his experiences in a new memoir entitled “the Art of Perception” published by Atlantic Books. This week I was invited to one of the events launching this book. Often credited with introducing the American discipline of PR to the rest of the world, Leaf was responsible for creating the international network of offices which made Burson-Marsteller into the world’s largest PR firm during his tenure. He was the first executive to bring PR to the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War, and he signed a partnership agreement with the Chinese Government to establish the first official Chinese Government PR firm. He also opened the first international PR firm in the Middle East and started offices throughout Europe, Asia, South America and Australia.

According to Harold Burson, co-founder of Burson-Marsteller and still active in his 90s, “There is no other person in the public relations agency business who knows more about the ins and outs of establishing a global network capable of serving the public relations and communications of the world’s largest corporations.”

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and a world of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn Bob explains how PR has in reality become perception management. He reveals that this is one of the keys to success not only for governments, companies and NGOs, but also for doctors, lawyers and even individuals. He has seen many changes in his 50 years in the business. When he started it was largely about the number of press clippings you achieved; now it is very much more than that. The role of women has fundamentally changed for the good. After all Bob is of the Mad Men generation and can recall when women's role was either secretarial or decorative. Now they play a major role. The role of in-house PR executives has changed too. They used to be flunkeys whose advice was ignored by top management. Now they are taken seriously and go on to be top management themselves.  The quality of students taking courses in PR is also very high. But Bob notes that the quality of writing has declined as there is less time to craft a press release. Clients have become much tougher, willing to pay more but demanding results.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is the image of PR. They’re still ‘spin doctors’. And PR will never be a profession, Bob asserts. Doctors can be struck off and lawyers disbarred but if a PR executive is fired he only needs a phone to set up shop across town the next day.

Bob gave us some controversial examples of good and bad perception management. Not so long ago every mother in Ireland wanted one of her sons to go into the Catholic priesthood.  But with the scandals of countless abuses and their cover-up over decades the Catholic Church now had to go to Africa to find the next generation of priests. PR had to develop a different level of sophistication - hence the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). PR is manipulative but no more than advertising or selling or merchandising.  Everyone does it. Hitler had his Goebbels, Churchill was a master. The fraudster Bernie Madoff successfully managed the perception by his investors that he was making huge returns for them when in fact he was just ruining a giant Ponzi scheme. PT Barnum was so successful at the game that even Queen Victoria wanted to meet Tom Thumb. But there are limits. You could not turn Attila the Hun into Attila the Honey!

Essentially the PR executive faces four different kinds of situation:
  1. The first is where there is no previous perception as with the launch of a new product.
  2. The second is where the perception is favourable but can still be reinforced as for example a charity.
  3. The third is where the perception is negative and needs to be changed.
  4. The fourth is where the perception is extremely negative and the challenge is how to modify that.
Bob has worked with both Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell and gave his views on those controversial figures.

The PR executive needs to decide which are the key audiences and what is the order of their importance. He then needs to ask himself a whole series of potential questions and prepare the right answers. The key figure has become the CEO as the reputation of a corporation has become intrinsically entwined with that of the CEO. It is estimated that the CEO is personally responsible for 47% of the company’s reputation. Warren Buffett, the renowned investor, says “If you lose money I will be understanding. If you lose reputation I will be ruthless.”  In Bob’s mind the transformation of IBM by Lou Gerstner was largely about the diagnosis by Gerstner that they’d screwed up their reputation and then the change of business model into one based on service.

Another test for the CEO was how he managed a crisis. The best example was James E. Burke at Johnson & Johnson who, against the advice of his colleagues, his advisers and his lawyers, decided to take $100 million worth of product off the nation’s shelves when packages of their market-leading pain-reliever Tylenol were laced with cyanide and a number of people died. They then developed tamper-resistant packaging before returning the products for sale and regained 85% of market share within a year as a result. This is now taught widely in business schools as a good example of crisis management.

Bob does not believe in the concept of company loyalty per se. He thinks employees stay if they believe in the vision as explained by the CEO, hence again the importance of CSR. He has a particular beef about doctors who lack skills in social behaviour. He cites one survey of patients with terminal cancer where only 22% were shown empathy by their doctors. I am not sure if this is about perception as we have always judged a doctor by his ‘bedside manner’.

Bob is a wonderful raconteur and sold his book well in an entertaining talk. He is by no means politically correct but an audience that was more than half female readily forgave him that. Some of his stories I don’t think I can repeat here but here is one from his dealings with Robert Maxwell. Apparently Maxwell came in the office one day and caught sight of a young man who was smoking, which was against the rules. “Put that out!” he thundered, “You’re fired. How much do you earn?” “£100 per week” stammered the young man. “Here’s a cheque for six weeks wages. Now get lost.” So the young man took the cheque for £600 and left the building. But he didn’t work there. He was a courier who had delivered a parcel!

Perception is one of the Ps in my book 'The 20 Ps of Marketing' which is due to be published next year by Kogan Page. Bob's career and memoirs reinforce that.

Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved

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