Subsidies: PR and perception management

850 is not surprising to read reports of government media advisors advising newspaper reporters how to report about the official plan to reduce or eliminate subsidies.

So it is okay to say “upward adjustments” but not “price hikes”.

Increasingly governments are hiring public relations folks to manage the way the public reacts to new policy move and manage dissent. In public relations circles, this is referred to as “perceptions management”.

Perception management essentially means changing the reality as seen by others so that it corresponds with your reality.

I have a feeling this art of managing perceptions has been applied in the approach to scrapping subsidies. Public perception of the plan to remove subsidies would have been largely negative. The task of the public relations folks is to try and alter the way the public see that so that it corresponds to the government’s way of looking at it. In other words, the government’s public relations people have had to try and narrow the “perception gap”.

Thus a plan was put in place, involving labs, displays of superficial but much publicised efforts at “consultations”, even the attempt to create a sense of impending crisis by highlighting the possibility that Malaysia could face bankruptcy by 2019, if subsidies were not reduced.

One public relations firm has described perception management as:

Perception is a way of seeing, understanding or interpreting. In business, perceptions describe the way stakeholders perceive an enterprise or a brand, based on its actions and the behaviour of its people. To stakeholders, perception is their reality. Perceptions may be good or bad, depending on the experiences that stakeholder groups might have had when engaging with the organisation. We suggest that companies become more sensitive to these perceptions and work to address the perception gap – i.e. the gap that exists between stakeholder perceptions and the company’s ideal perceptions of itself. Hence, perceptions have to be managed to ensure that a sound reputation of the organisation is nurtured. Perceptual assets are intangible but nevertheless valuable. By managing perceptions, an enterprise builds reputational value.

How do you manage perceptions? Can perceptions be managed?

The answer is yes! Typically, the process would begin with a Stakeholder Perception Audit to gauge perceptions held by key stakeholder groups towards the organisation. Following from that, the organisation would commit to addressing each key issue of perception, identifying perception gaps where they exist and implementing appropriate change programmes. Meanwhile, the task of communicating messages begins, messages founded on truth and fact. Over time, the leadership succeeds in growing the enterprise into an organisation whose values represent those sought by its key stakeholder groups. Essentially, there must be interest in feedback and a commitment to addressing the issues raised in the interest of changing negative perceptions to positive ones.

The government probably feels the media have a crucial role to play in shaping public perceptions. Thus they are advised from using the term “price hikes” and instead play up the “benefits” of reducing subsidies to get the public to buy into the idea.

The problem is the mainstream media have low credibility and thus the proposal to scrap or reduce subsidies is that much harder to sell to a more critical and discerning public, post 8 March 2008.-