The Power of Perception

By Dr. Georges Ulrich, CEO of gfs Research Institute and author of Repositioning of a Stakeholder Issue applied at Pfizer Switzerland.

A short while ago, I asked myself the following question: How can a company best communicate with its stakeholders in order to attain a certain goal? It may not be much of a problem to speak with everyone face to face if I have, say, 10 employees and 10 customers. But what if I have several hundred, or a thousand, or even more individual stakeholders? How could I make sure I don’t lose touch with all these important people?

In business, communication can either be used as an instrument of persuasion or as a means of synchronization. Persuasive communication is often perceived as manipulative and untrustworthy, but synchronizing communication fosters mutual involvement, and therefore has a sustainable trust-building effect. With this in mind, my goal was to thoroughly understand the needs of my stakeholders and create an area of interaction for fruitful dialogue.

I discussed this idea with professors Sybille Sachs and Ed Freeman at the Darden School of Business in Virginia, USA. They suggested that I compare how a company perceives itself with the external perception of its customers and the media, thereby providing a basis for reflection for the company’s perception of itself. I decided to do just that.

Pfizer Switzerland presented an exemplary situation: They had a pretty unusual problem considering this size and global reach— no one knew about Pfizer in Switzerland. Although they are number one worldwide in the pharmaceutical business, few people knew of their presence. Furthermore, due to Swiss regulations, pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to have direct contact with the Swiss populace, which makes recognition even more difficult.

Against this background, I analyzed how the people at Pfizer perceive the public appearance of their company and compared this to the public perception of Pfizer. My first step was to make a content analysis of the five largest newspapers in Switzerland over a period of two years, in order to find out how the media presents Pfizer. I then conducted two telephone surveys to bring to light what the general populace thinks about the company. After this, I held interviews with members of Pfizer Switzerland’s top management team, discussing their perception of the company and its relation to the stakeholders. Finally, I made a comparison of my investigation results.

It was enlightening to discover that what is written in the media doesn’t necessarily correspond with what the general public thinks, and certainly not with how Pfizer managers perceive their own company. Furthermore, the expectations of the Pfizer management team with regard to media coverage and public opinion did not correspond with how they perceived Pfizer.

The Pfizer top management team was shaken by the discord pointed out by these results, and we organized a workshop to examine the situation in more detail. My analysis helped the company better reflect on itself and its vision in order to understand how to plan stakeholder-oriented communication and implement adequate communication channels for speaking with all relevant stakeholder groups. All in all, I discovered a lot about perception, especially when it comes to business. Whether you’re a small business or a conglomerate like Pfizer, at the end of the day communication is key.

Dr. Georges Ulrich is CEO of the research company gfs Research Institute, and owner of the D&S Research Institutefor market and communication research in Zürich, Switzerland. To learn more about the power of perception, e-mail him.

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