Perception Versus Reality in Public Relations

When many people think of Cleveland, the term “vacation destination” does not immediately come to mind. Cleveland is where I spent my recent vacation, however, and it’s where I thought a lot about public relations. It had been almost ten years since I’d been to Cleveland; all I remembered was a rundown city filled with half-empty factories and decaying housing. But what I saw on my trip was a city moving forward–and dealing with the very real public relations problem of perception versus reality.

Scaffolding and cranes downtown showcased rehab work and new construction. Jacobs Field and Gund Arena are beautiful, state-of-the-art sports facilities, and the waterfront on Lake Erie is graced by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a beautiful science museum. The Tremont area, long an eyesore, is booming with bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. And unlike New York, the streets have more pavement than potholes. I also met a local man who was helping put together an arts and technology festival that he hoped to include the rehabbing of dozens of abandoned storefronts.

Sure, locals rightfully continue to complain about the steel and iron mills churning out pollution, but one big steel mill is slated to be shuttered and an entire “greened” riverfront park is planned to replace it. The smoke and flames from the mills, while obviously not great for the lungs, do signal one positive trend: jobs.

In a very real sense, Cleveland has done a 180-degree turn since my last visit. You wouldn’t know this, however, unless you visited. After spending 72 hours in and around the city, and after digging below the surface a bit, Cleveland is now on my shortlist of potential places to relocate.

My trip didn’t just involve seeing Cleveland in a new light. I rented a Ford for the drive out and was pleasantly surprised by how well the car handled, the gas mileage, and the general feel of the automobile. I was surprised because for years I’ve heard car-owning friends trash Ford products, not to mention that my family swore off Fords long ago because of some bad experiences.

On the flipside, New Yorkers crow about how the great hometown pizza. Truth be told, finding good pizza in New York is as difficult as finding good soft-shell crabs in Minnesota; the best pizza I’ve had in years came this past weekend courtesy a mom-and-pop shop in tiny Bedford, Ohio. I ended the fun portion of my trip by shopping at Wal-Mart, which if you live in New York City, is generally considered the embodiment of pure evil.

On my drive home, I mulled over my experiences: Why do the city of Cleveland and Ford cars have such bad reputations? Why does everyone think that New York–and/or perhaps Chicago–has the best pizza? Why is Wal-Mart painted as the evil by some, and as a consumer’s paradise by others?

It is because of public relations, I thought. It’s about perception versus reality. It’s because word-of-mouth can overpower public relations campaigns, whether it’s a campaign launched by a tourism department, a chamber of commerce, or a corporation. It’s also because public relations can be a powerful force, convincing people (despite all the perceived negatives) to go a half-hour out of my way on an eight-hour trip to shop at Wal-Mart.

I’ve seen good PR campaigns foiled by poor execution, and bad PR campaigns succeed wildly because of luck. More often than not, however, what I see is the power of public relations being shared by the PR professionals, the media, and the general public. Harnessing this power–getting the media and the public on board–should be a top priority. Instead, what I mostly encounter is the public relations industry playing the tired old game of sending out press releases and pitching to the same media outlets, time and time again.

This is perhaps why–when sitting in a traffic jam on the way home, reading about Wal-Mart trying to enter Cleveland to the boos of citizens–I wondered why the world’s largest retailer still “doesn’t get it.” A perfect opportunity to reshape the company’s image is going by the wayside, and Cleveland is missing an important opportunity to extract positive public relations out of a potentially negative situation. Instead, Wal-Mart is once again being portrayed as the harbinger of death for local retail, and Cleveland is once again being portrayed as a backwater city with suspect politicians. If these people only knew about the power of public relations, the power of perception!

With my head swimming–and traffic on I-80 bottlenecking due to construction–I popped in a CD and decided to put the questions about public relations to rest for the day. I had one day left on my vacation, and then it was back to work preparing a public relations strategy for a new product my company is getting ready to launch. I promised myself not to make the same mistakes Wal-Mart and Cleveland are making.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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