The Reality Gap (revisited)

Thanks to my rather odd but enduring habit of deleting everything I write after a while I seem to have mislaid my words of wisdom which explained my thinking behind “The Reality Gap.”

Not that anybody cares really what I think, but if you are reading this and have wondered where the moniker “The Reality Gap” came from, here goes…


On a cold Monday morning at the beginning of the year in 1995 I was sitting in the rather impressive board room of McDonald’s in the UK at their East Finchley headquarters.

Bright and very early every Monday morning the executive board, which I had yet to join for another two years, met to review “numbers,” share stories from the visits everybody had made to restaurants over the weekend, and to look at the weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual plans.

As the head of communications at that point I was also asked to attend parts of the meeting to discuss issues threats and media coverage.

On that particular day there was a sticky issue fermenting. Not yet in the media, but something I thought it likely might be in the following week.

I won’t share here what it was because fortunately we managed to keep it quiet and to head of nosey journalists in time. So as it turned out it was job done, but I didn’t know that at the time.

After I had share the story with the board, one of the directors looked straight at me and said (words to this effect expletives deleted) “why don’t you PR types just fix it, that’s what you’re there for isn’t it?”

As it turned out that is exactly what I did, I fixed it as in I made the risk of the story go away. Copious amounts of alcohol were required I seem to recall.

But at that moment I decided to go off on one, as is my wont, in a fir of self-righteousness to tell the director that my job wasn’t about “fixing the image” (it was) but trying to get him to understand what the reality was that had caused the perception.

I then asked him (well the room generally really) if he knew if the accusation at the root of the story was true. He didn’t know. Nobody knew.

Having got out of the board room still finding myself with a job, I went back to my desk and had think about what I had just said. Unusually I thought that one of my rants actually made some sense!

I then looked at our issues risk map. McDonald’s were big on these. They originated in the US where it had once been discovered by a bright PR person that rumours that developed into issues travelled across the country following the routes of the restaurant delivery truck drivers.

It turned out that rumours spread along their journey paths. This led to a wider analysis of what causes rumours and the development of many different ways to identify, understand and address risk.

I looked at my risk map and wondered how much of what was on it originated in truth. Nobody really knew and I hadn’t looked at this in my first eighteen months in the business as I had been rather pre-occupied with fire fighting issues and incidents, not east the beginning of the longest and most pointless legal trial in English legal history.

When I had first joined the business I learned very quickly that the job of the team I had inherited was, in respect of issues management, to make things go away. Often this had been resolved by sending solicitors letters to people who said things we didn’t like. Other times it had been achieved through creating a news black out (this was pre-internet) by distracting the attention of journalists away with bright shiny objects.

I don’t think anybody, in the in-house teams or in the agencies, had really asked what was behind the issues. Nobody except (the now sadly and all too soon late) James Maxwell who ran one of the McDonald’s UK agencies called Scope (long since owned by Ketchum).

James had been the only person to stand up to say how absurd he thought what became known as the McLibel action was before it started, and he was the only person to my knowledge who ever asked my favourite two questions … Is it true, do we do this? And – why do we do it?

James helped me to develop these thoughts as a good consultant should. Then one of our other agency teams Countrywide (long since part of Porter Novelli) led by Sally Williams at the time picked up the idea and with IpsosMORI ran McDonald’s first “Stakeholder Audit.”

McDonald’s had the “numbers” coming out of their ears. Restaurant sales are viewed by the hour compared year to year. Brand audits and monitors tell them what customers and non-customers think about the brand in infinite detail of analysis. Exhaustive “secret diner” data cross-checks everything.

But in 1995 other than an annual Parliamentary Panel piece of research, there was no non-marketing audit of opinions available. The Countrywide exercise researched opinion on every conceivable issue with political, media, analyst, financial, employee, customer, business, partner, franchisee, and community stakeholders. It formed the basis of a deeper understanding of what different audiences cared about most and why.

Mapped to the existing Risk work, this charted favourability/familiarity against the significance of issues and audiences. It was clear that all audiences mattered but that some mattered more than others.

I used the insights from this data to inform and develop “The Reality Gap” test.

The reality gap scenarios

Basically we looked at the gaps between what was said, what was done, what we thought was being done, and what others thought was being done. We compared those perceptions with the reality to identify The Reality Gaps which defined Corporate Reputation.

We then looked at whether this meant we should recommend that the business changed the reality, lived with it, communicated better, or mitigated the damage.

In subsequent years using this model in different businesses including during my in-house roles with Microsoft and BT, we added these elements of an extend methodology:


We looked at…

  • The Purpose for the business and any relevant activity;
  • the Promise made by the business particularly through government relations, PR, advertising, and publicity and promotions as well as employer branding;
  • the Practice, that is the reality of what the business does including the Perception that makes people in different audiences believe what that Practice is, whether it is or not;
  • People as in the way people understand and believe what they do;
  • and lastly Prejudice as in what informs and creates perceptions – fair or not.

“The Reality Gap” became my methodology for rising to that challenge in the McDonald’s boardroom of “fix it.” The communications function was able to respond with an evidence-based approach to ask – fix what and why?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s