PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Images can be natural or constructed perceptions
© 2000 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations About the author

"An image is synthetic. It is planned: created especially to serve a purpose, to make a certain kind of impression." (A person's image is) "a visible public personality as distinguished from an inward private character.

"By our very use of the term we imply that something can be done to it; the image can always be more or less successfully synthesized, doctored, repaired, refurbished, and improved, quite apart from [though not entirely independent of] the spontaneous original of which the image is the public portrait."

-- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image; A Guide to Pseudo-events in America

Today we use the term "image" to convey what a person or an organization appears to be, which is sometimes very different from who/what they actually are in private.

Some personal or corporate images seem to be "more real," or to be a more honest reflection of the subject's "actual personality." This may be because such people/organizations are without artifice and feel comfortable being themselves in public, or it may be because they became public unexpectedly or by accident and had no time to prepare a different sort of image. Other images are obviously public personalities that are very consciously and carefully projected.

Image-making is sometimes seen as a negative activity.

The simple fact that someone's image and public appearance can be consciously constructed, projected, and manipulated is very discomforting and troubling for some people. They consider it improper and unethical behavior, and have used it as the basis for many of the most damning and recurring criticisms of public relations. Among other things, they assert that public relations is all window-dressing, that it lack meaningful substance, that it deals only with images and not with reality, that it relies on deception and misrepresentation, and that it is inherently fraudulent and manipulative.

Such critics claim public relations' images create facades for people and organizations that are no more real than the false-front sets movie makers use to re-create New York City or the Old West on Hollywood sound stages. And, just as movie makers want, and expect, audiences to perceive their sets as reality and to believe they're seeing Tombstone or Singapore or the command deck of a starship, public relations practitioners want their audiences to believe the images presented to them are real. But, the critics argue, images are never real. They're artificial, not natural, and because they're artificial, they're false by definition. So, these critics conclude, images and the public relations practitioners who use them are inherently deceptive and misleading rather than helpful and informative.

As much as we might want to defend public relations, we have to admit that the critics are right about some images, some practitioners, and some public relations activities. There have, in fact, been and probably will be more fraudulent, immoral, unethical, and even illegal uses of images by some public relations practitioners. But, they're the abberations. A few instances of misbehavior do not mean that all images, all image-making, or all public relations activities are inappropriate.

Artificial constructs are not inherently bad.

The mere fact that images can be constructed and can be manipulated doesn't necessarily make them bad. Modern life depends upon artificially constructed realities of all kinds.

After all, what are modern houses but artificial substitutes for primitive humans' homes in caves? More than a century ago, when the first high-rise apartment buildings were built on the East Coast, the architects who designed them said they were inspired by Mesa Verde and other then-recently rediscovered cliff dwellings. Their artificial construction didn't automatically make them bad. Nor did it automatically make them good. Neither did the fact that they were patterned after, but were not exact replicas, of an earlier type of dwelling make them good or bad. Whether any of these apartments inspired by cliff dwellings were good or bad depended upon the quality of their construction, their purpose, their price, the ways they differed from the original upon which they were patterned, and the ways they were actually used.

The same is true of images. They are neither inherently good nor bad. Nor are they inherently honest nor false.

If the person who creates an image has an evil or deceptive purpose, then, depending upon how well he/she does in constructing the image, the image may end up being evil or deceptive. If the person who creates an image has a noble purpose, there's more likelihood, albeit no guarantee, that the image will be good and noble.

The greatest reason for being concerned about images shouldn't be their artificiality or the fact that they've been constructed. It should be how much correlation exists between the constructed image and the underlying reality that it's presumed to represent.

Rethinking the meaning of good image v. bad image

Originally, the degree of correspondence between an image and its underlying reality was the primary factor in distinguishing a good image from a bad image. Plato, for instance, compared an image to a shadow cast on the wall, and Walter Lippman in Public Opinion said images were "pictures in our heads." Both believed that the more closely and more accurately an image portrayed external reality, the better and more meaningful it was.

Today, when we label an image as good or bad, its correspondence with reality may not even be considered. When we refer to someone having a good or bad image, we're hardly ever implying anything about how well their image reflects their real personality or their actual behavior. Instead, we're talking about how positively or how negatively the public responds to their image.

The terms "good image" and "bad image" as used today rarely reveal anything about the relative amounts of fact or fiction in an image. They don't even represent an ethical or moral value judgment. They simply reflect how positively or how negatively people who are exposed to the image respond to the person or organization represented by the image.

Insofar as public relations is able to help people or organizations project "good images," it can help them receive favorable public responses whether they deserve them or not.

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22 Sept 2013