|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|Perceptions can be direct or mediated|
|© 2000 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations
|About the author|
Like it or not, and whether you personally choose to do it or not, human perceptions can be easily manipulated in numerous ways. And, in so far as public relations practitioners are able to influence people's perceptions, they can affect how those people respond to other people and organizations.
Personal encounters involve direct perceptions.
When another person is physically present with you -- e.g., he or she is standing in front of you and conversing with you -- you're having a direct, first-hand, and personal experience of that other person. Some people call it a "real" or "actual experience." But, whatever it's called, you're forming your own direct perceptions of that other person without having to rely on anyone else's impressions or interpretations.
Historically, direct perceptions and personal experiences were the most common way of knowing about other people or organizations. Unless you directly interacted with people, you knew very little about them. And you knew of very few living people with whom you didn't interact.
As recently as the nineteenth century, first-hand experiences outnumbered mediated experiences for most of the population.
- There were no electric mass media -- no radio, no television, and no movies -- to let audiences see and hear people and events that were distant from them.
- The majority of people were illiterate and unable to read about distant people or events, or even about local people. Those who could read were limited in terms of what was available for them. Despite the spread of public libraries, books remained a relatively rare and precious commodity, and newspapers and magazines had only limited circulation until the second half of the nineteenth century.
- About the only second-hand or mediated perceptions most people had were those that came from word of mouth.
Today, mediated perceptions outnumber direct ones.
If someone is not physically present with you -- e.g., if you're watching that person on television or reading about them in a magazine -- you're having an indirect or second-hand experience of that person. Instead of experiencing the actual person yourself and forming direct perceptions, you form mediated perceptions of that person because your sensory impressions have been filtered by and through other people and communication mechanisms before you ever receive them.
- If you're reading a story about someone, you're reading only what the author and editor saw fit to tell you.
- If you're watching someone on television, you're seeing only what the camera operators and director have chosen to let you see.
- And listening to television or radio, you only hear what the audio engineers and director have chosen to let you hear.
Unless you're actually present, you don't know what was edited out of, or into, the message, nor do you know how much the signal was processed and modified. Examples of how a television director's decisions affect viewer perceptions are discussed in a linked reading.
The adjective "mediated" wasn't given to these perceptions because they involve the mass media, although they often do. They're "mediated perceptions" because one or more third parties (mediators) are interposed between us and the people or events we're encountering. Public relations is involved in this because its practitioners often create mediated realities to trigger favorable perceptions of their clients.
Today, when it's not uncommon for people living next door to each other in urban areas to not even know one another, we have had mediated experiences and mediated perceptions of thousands of people all over the world. We've seen and heard political leaders, celebrities, sports figures, and just plain folks. Some we see only once and never again. Others we see almost daily. They're on television so much of the time, that we almost think we know them.
A hundred years ago, only a fraction of the U.S. population -- maybe one of every twenty people -- ever saw the President of the United States, and most of those who did see him only did so once in their lifetimes. Today, virtually everyone living in the United States has the opportunity to see the President, via television, two or three or more times each day.
Most of us have also seen New York City, the French Riviera, the Great Barrier Reef, the polar icecap, Rwanda, and the far side of the moon, among other places. Even if we've never been there in person, we have perceptions of all these places and countless others.
Are direct perceptions best?
We shan't debate whether direct perceptions are better than second or third-hand mediated perceptions. Sometimes they are; sometimes they aren't.
But, don't believe that direct perceptions are a "pure" experience or that they're free of manipulation or other special influences.
When you have a face to face meeting with a U.S. senator, you form direct perceptions of that senator. This is true whether she planned and prepared for your meeting or not. However, the more she planned for it, and the more she talked it over with her advisers, the less "pure" it may be in terms of giving you a glimpse of what's really on her mind and in her heart. Even though your perceptions are direct, they may well have been manipulated and intentionally pushed in one direction or another.
And, although it confounds philosophers and would astound earlier generations, it's not at all unusual for modern Americans to give greater credibility to their mediated perceptions than to their own direct perceptions.
- Race track stewards frequently put more faith in the photographs of a close finish than in their own eyes.
- Referees in some sporting events review instant replays before making a call on critical plays.
- Autograph seekers frequently say such things as "She didn't act like herself./... look like herself./ ... sound like herself." after meeting a celebrity they've seen and admired in films or on TV.
- Tourists at places like the Grand Canyon, Westminster Abbey, or Stonehenge express their disappointment that the site isn't as clean or as colorful or as big as they expected it to be. Most of them don't attribute their disappointment to misleading mediated perceptions they previously received. They accept the mediated perceptions as they way things should be or as they used to be and complain that the site has deteriorated or failed to live up to what it's supposed to be.
How much, if any, responsibility should public relations assume for this?
While you're thinking about this, you might want to consult some of the most widely-recognized public relations codes of ethics to see what they say, or don't say, about the limits that should be placed on mediated realities and other creative interpretations developed by public relations professionals.
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