The social phenomenon known as public perception can be seen as the difference between an absolute truth based on facts and a virtual truth shaped by popular opinion, media coverage and/or reputation. Celebrities, politicians and corporations all face the same scrutiny by the public they serve, and it can be very difficult to overcome a negative perception by the public. While individual companies may strive to do the right things for the right reasons, how the public views the industry as a whole can make those things much more challenging to put into motion.
The public perception of the tobacco industry, for example, is generally negative. From published reports on the hazards of cigarette smoke to televised images of tobacco company executives facing congressional scrutiny, perception suggests that tobacco company owners favor profits over public safety, and they would be unwilling to stop producing such hazardous products. This image may be based on an absolutely accurate assessment of the industry, or it may be based on biased media reports and faulty scientific studies. The bottom line is that a negative public perception would make it more difficult for individual tobacco companies to improve their image or make substantial changes.
Political figures must also consider public perception while campaigning for office. During the 2008 US presidential election campaign, for example, both candidates faced difficult image issues. The Republican candidate, John McCain, was often portrayed by media outlets as being too old for the position or too moderate politically to represent his entire political party. Democratic candidate Barack Obama was often portrayed as an Ivy League elitist or too ineffectual to e commander in chief. Both men used public speeches and media interviews to overcome much of the negative perception.
Public perception is not necessarily inaccurate or based on something other than the truth. The public at large can often receive enough factual information in order to form a general opinion about a public figure, celebrity or industry without relying on innuendo or unfounded rumors. There can be instances, however, when the perception of a situation is affected by other issues, such as cultural bias or prejudice. A defendant accused of a heinous criminal act may or may not be guilty of the actual crime, but perception of that type of crime can be difficult for a jury to ignore while deliberating.
Some situations can be compounded by their negative effect on public perception. For example, the revelation that a number of professional baseball players had used illegal performance-enhancement substances angered many fans, but also challenged the public image of baseball as a relatively drug-free sport. Public perception of a given situation can be unrealistically positive or negative, which can become problematic whenever the true facts emerge and corrective action must be taken. This is why many people feel very conflicted when a perceived good person is accused of a crime or a perceived bad industry is not penalized for its actions.