PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Images can be natural or constructed perceptions
© 2000; 2013; 2019 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, and that is sometimes very different from who or what they actually are in private.

Some personal or corporate images seem to be "more real," or "more natural," or more honest reflections of the subject's "actual personality." Sometimes it's because that's how those people or organizations actually are; they're largely without artifice and feel comfortable being themselves in public. In other cases, it's an accident of timing; they somehow unexpectedly came into the public spotlight and accidentally became public figures without having time to prepare and project a more carefully thought-out image of themselves.

Admittedly, other images appear to be obvious artificial constructions or public personas that have been developed to fool the public.


An artificial construction is not inherently bad.

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

After all, aren't our modern houses an artificial substitute for the natural, albeit primitive, housing early humans found in caves? In fact, more than a century ago when the first high-rise apartment buildings were being built on the East Coast, the architects who designed them said they had been inspired by Mesa Verde and other then recently-rediscovered cliff dwellings in the Southwest. The fact that these apartment buildings were an artificial construction didn't automatically make them bad. But, neither did it automatically make them good. The fact that they were patterned after, and hence could be considered images of cliff-dwellings, was irrelevant. Their assessment as good or bad had nothing to do with being inspired by cliff dwellings, it was based on their purpose, the needs of their intended occupants, the quality of their construction, their price, how they compared to other housing options, and the ways they were actually used.

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

Our greatest reason for being concerned about images shouldn't be the fact that they're artificial or that someone has constructed them. We should be concerned about how much correlation exists between the constructed image and the underlying reality that it's supposed to represent.

For many decades, throughout most of the 20th century, public relations practitioners proudly and openly engaged in image-making, and many luminaries of the profession, including Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, Henry Rogers, Warren Cowan, Doris Fleischman, and Leone Baxter, sometimes referred to themselves as "image-makers.". And, they were very effective at doing it.

If the person or organization creating and projecting an image is honest and well-intentioned, it's likely (but not guaranteed) that the image they create will be good and beneficial. But, if the creator of an image is inept and does a poor job, or is evil and has a malicious purpose for constructing the image, it may end up being a bad image or an evil or deceptive one.


The meanings of "good images" and "bad images" are now very different than they used to be.

Once upon a time, 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 of them believed that the more closely and more accurately an image reflected the actual external reality of the subject it was supposed to portray, the better and more useful it was.

Today, things are very different. Now, the ways most people use the terms "good image" and "bad image" have very little to do with how well the image reflects the attributes of the person or organization it's supposed to represent. Much of the public is no longer concerned with the relative amounts of fact and fiction included in the images they see and hear. Their determination of what's a good image and what's a bad image is based almost entirely on their personal reaction to the image itself: Does it make the person or organization it represents look like a "good guy" or "a bad one?" How much do they like or dislike the image? Does it please them or leave them feeling disatisfied? It's all about feelings, not about corresponding with reality.

Hopefully, ethical public relations practitioners won't accept all comers as clients and don't develop so-called "good images" for everyone who asks for and is willing to pay for one.


Regrettably, some critics of public relations view all image-making as a negative activity.

This perception is unfortunate, but it's wide-spread and has fed many of the criticisms and negative stereotypes of public relations practitioners as "sleazy hacks and shysters" that have persisted for decades. The undeniable fact that images can be consciously constructed and could, perhaps, be manipulated is extremely discomforting and troubling to some people. So, whether it actually happens or just remains a theoretical possibility, they consider the possibility of it happening so offensive, improper, and unethical that it becomes their justification for condemning the entire public relations profession.

They assert that public relations is merely window-dressing, like putting a pig in a silk ball gown. It creates false images without ever addressing reality, and public relations campaigns are without any meaningful substance. Beyond that, they claim that public relations is so based on deception and misrepresentation that it makes the entire profession inherently fraudulent, manipulative, and unethical.

They contend that the images public relations creates are no more real than the false-front movie sets that film-makers use to make their stories appear to be happening somewhere other than on a Hollywood sound stage. In the same way film-makers want their audiences to perceive their sets as real and believe they're seeing New York City or Singapore or the command deck of a starship, the critics say public relations practitioners want their target audiences to believe that the images and stories public relations feeds them are real. But, they never are. Images are artificial by definition, and, because they're artificial, they're false. That means public relations is inherently deceptive and misleading.

Obviously, I don't believe that, and I hope you don't either. But, as much as I want to defend public relations, I have to admit that some images created by some public relations practitioners have, at times, been misleading, fraudulent, immoral, unethical, and even illegal. But, these were abberations, not typical public relations activities. The entire profession should not be condemned for a few instances of misbehavior by some practitioners.

Never forget: neither image-making nor public relations is inherently inappropriate.

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Managing encounters Special events
Perceptions TV's impact on perceptions  
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20 April 2019