Public perception

We live in a world where access to information is almost instantaneous. We can find events reported on the Internet and over the airwaves almost as soon as something occurs. And with 24-hour news networks, you can often witness it as it is occurring.

In todayís information age, perception is almost as important as fact. In some cases, it can be even more so.

Now more than ever itís not just what you do or say, but how you spin it that contributes to how your actions and statements are perceived.

We donít have to be talking about presidential politics, the global economy or military conflicts (although we certainly could). We can look to our very own upstate New York county for examples of how important perception can be.

Letís take the Oxford School District as our first example. Maybe the board and administration arenít trying to sneak a fast one with their proposed capital project options. But the fact that they havenít listened to the community, which obviously has strong sentiments regarding the Middle School building, has those same community members questioning their motives.

Much of the controversy probably could have been avoided if they had truly made it a public process, getting and listening to community feedback at the onset of the process rather than at this stage. Kudos to the community for calling them on it.

We can also talk about the arrest of the New Berlin Police Chief. They have kept such a tight lid on the situation, that the only ďinformationĒ circulating is rumor and innuendo.

Which reminds me of the Norwich City School District and their lockdown of information on the Thomas Knapp Affair. (This is not a suggestion that there was extramarital impropriety, just a reference to one of the best movies of all time.)

The districtís ability to keep their collective lips sealed was truly admirable in the fact that nothing said ever disparaged Mr. Knapp during the months he remained principal but was absent from the school. We still donít know what happened. The CIA could probably learn a thing or two.

There is an unfortunate side effect to this iron information curtain though: The rise of conspiracy theory. Just because people donít have the full and correct details, doesnít mean they arenít going to talk about it anyway.

Could they have done it differently? I donít know. They have a balance to maintain between privacy issues and public information.

Sometimes even the best efforts can be misinterpreted, we all know that. This I witnessed recently in Guilford. The Town Board had solid reasons behind their decision to pass a law doing away with their three-member board of elected assessors in favor of a sole appointed assessor. But some residents read something else entirely out of their decision and felt that the board was trying to deprive them of their right to vote on the issue.

The public meeting held by the town was a blood bath and left me, as just a spectator, downing a handful of antacids. I donít think you could pay me to run for any town office after that.

For me, transparency is the key. If you donít communicate openly with your customers, taxpayers or constituents, it can seem to them like you are being intentionally misleading or hiding something.

If you have an open, involved process, people know the ďwhyĒ behind your decisions and motivations. You can nip that discontent, and the ensuing gossip mongering, in the bud.

I understand that some things canít be made public, like personnel issues and medical histories. But an effort must be made to ensure that your stakeholders are confident that you are actively seeking informed solutions to their problems.

If you are not mindful of the importance of public opinion and perception, you are essentially distributing the ammunition to be used against you.

My advice? If you live in a glass house, donít start handing out stones.

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