Make Perception Your New Reality

“We only ever have influence over our reputation—never control—as is the case with all things external to us, but it remains one of our most precious assets (far more important than any one job, house, car, or even, some would argue, money). Just why it’s so important…”

The Value of a Good Reputation: Why We Should Care About How Others Perceive Us. Psychology Today

What is perception? It’s what other people think about you.

How much does that matter? A lot.

Reputation is a strange brew, an often amorphous and fluctuating mix of history (the past), opinion (the present), and projection (the future). It’s what alumni, donors, members, constituents and everyone else outside the rarefied air of your organization thinks they “know” about you; what they glean from a glossy case statement, viewbook, or social media post.

We think our reputation “speaks for itself,” that it is a fixed and immutable story. We assume everyone just knows what it is; that like the national anthem, we all sing the same tune and don’t change the lyrics.

But that’s a dangerous assumption. Let your reputation lie dormant and it will calcify. Layer upon layer of rumor and magical thinking will accrue, and leave you few options for changing course and controlling how this critical asset is managed.

The nagging problem is that if you don’t tell people what your reputation is, they will tell you; defining it for you. Consider yourself forewarned: it’s much harder to walk all that misperception back than it is to take the steps necessary to make it what you want it to be.

Take Sarah Lawrence College, for instance. Iconic, groundbreaking almost 100-year-old women’s college, that went coed in the ’70s. Heady, intellectual, artistic, like-no-other. Known for its hallmark academic program built on the Oxford model of the dons, its reputation had languished, stuck in the past, un-updated for future generations. Enrollment and fundraising suffered because prospective students no longer knew what they were investing in. “Most expensive in the country” “all-girls” and “ DIY curriculum” had overshadowed its currency.

How to close that glaring gap? What was real and what was just noise?  By going back to basics, we were able, over time, to right the ship by implementing a successful reputational branding campaign that reasserted the meaning, value, and ROI of a Sarah Lawrence education.

“To succeed, in good times or bad, the leader of any organization must be able to answer the question ‘What are we here for?’ In volatile times, focusing on that question is even more urgent, because the organization’s activity often needs to change. Past usefulness can become irrelevant overnight; just ask the owners of today’s travel businesses, movie theaters, and gyms. In this context, business as usual, even on steroids, is an inadequate response. Instead, leaders have to shift their goals from maintaining the status quo to constructing a newly imagined future.

Harvard Business Review, “How the Best Leaders Answer What  Are We Here For?”

Here are some things to think about:

  1. Aim for impact, not mastery.

What your organization is known for will always be subject to the vagaries of public opinion. People see what they want to see. But if you craft a bold, memorable, and fact-based value proposition, using your reputation as proof positive, the errant suppositions will begin to fade.

  1. Don’t blink.

It’s harder to rebuild than to ruin. Building or rebuilding a wounded reputation is hard. You’ll need focus, patience, and time. Ours is a virtual world where complaintsdisaffection, and sour grapes can become fact overnight.

  1. Make conventional wisdom your friend.

Seek it out. Use it. Don’t assume that little things will stay little. It’s all relevant, every bit of it, and in the end, if taken seriously, will lead you towards an effective and long-lasting branding strategy, one that has real and durable staying power.