I’m proud to call Arizona my home since 2000, but I grew up in Cleveland.  DO NOT insert your own joke here.  Cleveland constantly seems to be the punchline of every national joke.  We even mocked ourselves.  I remember billboards paid for by the City’s daily newspaper saying “New York is the Big Apple but Cleveland’s the Plum.”

Clevelanders are especially hard on themselves as it relates to sports teams.  Collectively, sports memories are described by phrases such as “The Shot,” “The Fumble,” and “The Drive.” I still haven’t forgiven Jose Mesa for costing Cleveland the World Series in 1997 and have trouble saying LeBum’s name– even though I took my talents to the Valley of the Sun before he left town.Fictional movies only expand the mocking.  I was in a theater the opening night of the baseball comedy “Major League” 25 years ago.  I still remember cheering with the crowd during the opening credits as pictures of Cleveland landmarks and decaying buildings flashed on the screen, yet we knew that outside Northeast Ohio no one else was cheering with us, only laughing at us.  Amazingly, the movie mocking still continues to this day.  Most recently with Kevin Costner’s “Draft Day” movie that recently came out about a failing Browns football team.

Today, even though I left Cleveland nearly 20 years ago, it continues in my own house.   With the encouragement of my wife, my nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son get huge joy out of mocking me about anything revolving around Cleveland sports.  This includes the recently firings of both the Browns’ and Cavs coaches.  It also includes my family flashing the Manziel money sign with their hands after he was drafted. It’s been a rough year.

Here’s the thing…. I love it.  I love defending my home town.  I love when I’m playing basketball with my kindergartener if he decides to pretend he’s LeBum James and the Heat I’ll start playing tighter defense and won’t even let him get a shot off towards the hoop– and he knows it.

They constantly tell me to get over it.  But that would kill the fun.   I’ll root for Cleveland sports teams until the day I die.  It’s a loyalty thing, part of my life-story.  And yes, my loyalty isn’t limited to Cleveland sports.  Over the years I’ve become a “homer” with my adopted hometown of Phoenix sports teams too.  I confidently and unapologetically root for both my Cleveland and Arizona teams fully since they are in different divisions (AFC/NFC, AL/NL and East/West).  The only conflict will occur when they play each other in the World Series, Super Bowl or NBA Finals. Gee do I hope I have that dilemma soon!

But in truth, here’s the rub.  As Cleveland fans, we need to accept at least a portion of the responsibility for this perception.  If we didn’t repeatedly self-describe our sports failures as “The Shot,” “The Fumble,” and “The Drive” then outsiders wouldn’t either.  Yes, we’d still have lost, but it likely wouldn’t define Cleveland as it does today.

It’s no different as it applies to your business (see, I know you were wondering how I was going to turn this into an appropriate PR/business blog).  As leaders, we need to recognize how a seemingly benign negative perception can take root—growing beyond control if repeated internally and externally enough.   Stop repeating a negative, alter it. Create the narrative you want or else accept how others define and view the company in the long term.

Let me give an example.  If a company is perceived over a period of time as having rude and poorly trained employees, it’s extremely hard to change that perception even after you fix the problem.  Change the perception quickly before it defines you.  Share some human interest focused news stories showing how caring your co-workers go above and beyond for the community.  Create a news story around an upcoming training session or highlight employees that receive special certifications that give you an advantage over your competition.

As the spokesperson for your organization, it’s your job to not only talk, but to listen about what’s being said about the company.  A great way to start listening is to read the comments on news websites, on social media, in blog comments or even what you overhear at events or parties.

Don’t allow negative perceptions to be reinforced over time.  Instead, quickly make a perceived negative your positive reality.