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The OCR Glossary

Organizational and Corporate Image

John T. Llewellyn

Organizational image is defined as the public impression of an entity based on firsthand experience, institutional messages, and mass media accounts. Individuals decide how closely to identify with an organization based on its image. The image can position an organization within a category as well as distinguish it from others in the grouping. Corporate image refers to the projected image of a firm; it is of special concern to management and public relations consultants.

Organizational image and corporate image matter because they can be the gateway or invitation for public interaction with the firm. Thus, a negative organizational image, even if erroneous, can do significant harm by foreclosing the public’s willingness to engage the firm or its products. A negative image is not the only possible bad outcome; it can be the case that an organization has no image at all because the public is not aware that it exists. Therefore, thoughtful organizations monitor and safeguard their images; this is done primarily through communicative acts.

This entry covers the origin and meaning of image, the emergence of organizational image, public attitudes of organizational fallibility and culpability, and the various types of organizational image. The entry ends with a discussion of three types of image effects inside and outside organizations.

Origin and Meaning of Image

The notion of image can be traced to the work of Kenneth Boulding in the 1950s, when he published The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society. His central notion is that the world is filled with images that are relied on to understand and act in society. This argument suggests that individuals function with an internally crafted reality. His work promotes an understanding of the power of the images that ground society. He proposed a study of the science of images: eiconics.

In the 1960s, historian Daniel Boorstin published a book also called The Image. His focus was not philosophical but rather pragmatic. He drew attention to a phenomenon dubbed the pseudo-event; this is an event that happens for the sole purpose of being distributed by the media. His prime examples in those days were news conferences and presidential debates. These events do not partake of reality but attempt to manufacture a made-for-television version of it that will serve the performers’ interests rather than those of the broader society. Like Boulding, Boorstin was drawing attention to the impact of these practices on the clarity of our understanding of society. The former looked at the philosophical virtue of a deep understanding of society, while the latter sounded an alarm about how easily the public might be misled. In either case, clearly image is central.

Emergence of Organizational Image

In the 1980s, business publications began to attend to and to rank corporations on the general assessment of “most admired.” The introduction of a formal structure for these judgments turned a vague desire for corporate status and respect into a quantifiable goal. The fact of an annual magazine edition and the reality of a firm’s capacity to rise or fall on the tide of peer review turned the earlier vague desire into a topic that became front and center in the boardroom. Everyone can grasp that such rankings are imprecise and artificial; just like executives, competitive liberal arts colleges also labor to beat the rankings, and some even falsify data to retain a place of prestige on the lists. Experts can cite myriad ways in which ranking systems, whether corporate or collegiate, fail to fully measure what they claim to. While that may be true, there is the iron law of the scoreboard: If the rankings and numbers are up there, the public will see them, take them to heart, and act on them. Organizational leaders will do the same; the risks of ignoring the rankings are too great. At that level, it does not matter if the rankings are skewed or wrong; they become true when the public takes them as true. The organizational image will be directly affected; so these rankings, however derived, are ultimately significant.

The fact that management wants to closely monitor issues of image and reputation is the foundation for the professional significance and advancement of communication professionals: for example, public relations experts, speechwriters, issue managers, and crisis communication specialists. Both image and reputation rise and fall through messages—corporate annual reports, product launches, crisis responses, and company tweets. Professionals who can educate and guide management to choose responsible actions and statements will gain credibility for themselves and their profession. Modern organizations are players in the ubiquitous world of social media, where verbal and visual content can be created and uploaded to worldwide attention by anyone with a smartphone.

Organizations can be active message creators in this context, but organizations can also become targets on social media. For instance, two employees at a North Carolina Domino’s store posted a video in which one of them appeared to put cheese up his nose and then onto a pizza to be baked. The segment had a million hits. The company’s brand, its image, and its future were all at stake due to this prank. Domino’s management responded by identifying and firing the employees, sanitizing the store, and posting an apology and explanation on YouTube. The value of effective responses applies to larger issues as well. In 1982, in metropolitan Chicago, a criminal contaminated boxes of Tylenol capsules with cyanide and placed them back on store shelves. Seven people died; no one was ever prosecuted. Despite that horrendous outcome, Johnson & Johnson, the company whose brand was targeted, was hailed as a thoroughly responsible corporate citizen for its willingness to pull its products from stores and for its complete cooperation with law enforcement investigators. In a brief time, the company’s products returned to dominate the consumer market.

Attitudes on Organizational Fallibility and Culpability

In American culture, organizations and corporations are often given the benefit of the doubt on issues of image. The default option in public opinion presumes the goodwill and positive intentions of established entities. In the absence of a specific showing, firms are generally believed to be doing the right thing. However, with the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and multiple cable and Internet outlets, any negative report or claim can travel far and wide before it is corroborated or disproven. YouTube and websites featuring citizen journalists are further sources of threat to organizational image. Disparaging news can be posted on these sites at any time. When the charges are borne out and an organization’s bad behavior is confirmed, there is still a benefit of the doubt at work. Organizational errors can be defended as a “one off,” as the actions of a rogue or disgruntled employee or a small group, or as inadvertent. Should these strategies fail and the organization itself be found responsible, observers are quick to note that the behavior is not characteristic of the industry as a whole and label the organization an outlier. This pattern of reasoning and attribution serves to minimize harm to organizational images.

Categories of Organizational Image

Scholars have established six categories of organizational image: (1) definition, (2) facade, (3) impression, (4) perception, (5) projection, and (6) refraction. In the aggregate, these six vantage points on the issue of organizational image allow for conversations about image involving organizational representatives, concerned observers, politicians, and the news media. Each of the six angles illuminates a facet within a comprehensive organizational image. The “defining” image presents root metaphors that exemplify the organization’s worldview. The image as a facade describes the circumstances in which the organization’s public presentation of itself varies greatly from reality. The image as impression conveys the emotional “snapshot” response to an organization in positive or negative terms. A perceived image focuses on stakeholders’ perceptions, which can include aspects of organizational identity, external image, and corporate reputation. The projected image (also called the corporate image) depicts how the organization would like to be perceived by examining the images of itself that it distributes. The refracted image presents organizational images as conveyed by third parties, such as the news media.

One scholarly approach to image now emphasizes that elements of image reside within the receiving public. Clearly, companies engage in actions that lay the groundwork for assessments of image. That groundwork as presented in organizational texts seeking to define an image then encounters personal and environmental factors in communities and individuals. Now, there is an audience to react to the firm’s assertions regarding its image. So that image is determined by a dual process: The organization produces image messages, and publics who can relate to it consume those messages. The interaction of those two processes produces the image.

Scholars in this tradition see image as originating from three sources: (1) those controlled by the organization, (2) those controlled by personal experiences, and (3) those controlled by business judgments. Ideally, these three vantage points will yield coherent, if not identical, images. This school of thought believes that an image is a somewhat unified concept and that it is multidirectional, involving the organization, the audience, and the environment. As a result, to be effective, organizational messages must touch all these bases. In short, there need to be many messages because there are many receivers and varied environments that the company wishes to reach. To paraphrase a famous rhetorical axiom, “Image is never not at issue.” With all this effort, it is still true that there are some dimensions of organizational image that the organization itself does not control.

Image Effects Inside and Outside Organizations

While image is understood as a trait external to the organization, it can nevertheless have effects on employees within the firm. Scholarly research has established that the nature of an organization’s image affects the extent to which workers will identify with the organization. Identity, or the perceived overlap of interests between worker and organization, is the crown jewel of employee relations. When workers see themselves sharing values with the institution, there are positive effects for loyalty and efficiency; conversely, if there is little perceived overlap, cooperation is a long shot.

Employee Loyalty and Identification

In this tradition, workers see two images. The first is what workers view as distinctive, central, and enduring about the organization; this construct is known as the perceived organizational identity. The second image is what workers see as others’ beliefs about the organization; this vision is dubbed the construed mental image. Workers evaluate these images on the basis of how well they preserve their self-concept, provide distinctiveness, and enhance self-esteem. The more effective images are in this sort of identity boosting, the stronger the workers’ bonds will be with the organization and the more likely they will feel that their association with the organization will make them special. Conversely, when organizational image takes a plunge due to scandal, disaster, or other misadventure, employee identification will also trend downward. When a company is in the news for an oil spill or bribery allegation, it becomes a little harder for employees to work up the zeal to show the flag. So it is that image—a primarily external feature—can affect loyalty and identity within the organization.

Impact of Recruitment Image on Attracting Talent

Not only does image have an impact on the extent of employee identification with the company but image is also significantly influential in the process by which potential employees decide whether to pursue gaining more information about the company. So image influences the likelihood of the creation of a bond between employee and company by shaping the recruitment itself. Scarcity of organizational information or a negative tone reflected in it could be the end of the line for interest from prospective employees. This effect would be difficult for a firm to ascertain because there is no method for debriefing or holding a focus group with prospects who decide not to initiate contact.

This body of research adds the notion of recruitment image as a subset of organizational image. People who are in the job market consult specific sources—recruitment brochures and posters, for example—as well as generally available information about an organization. Inadequacy in either realm of information—recruitment or general—can spell the end of the line for the potential recruit’s interest in learning more about the firm. That result would be a serious effect in its own right. This research has further found that different external groups hold different image ratings of the same organization, even when they are based on the same materials. Recruits can see major differences between general information and that tailored for recruiting. So even when organizations recognize the importance of image, and especially recruitment image, they face the ambiguity of knowing that even well-intentioned messages may be evaluated in vastly different ways by external groups.

In the face of these difficulties, the research does offer some useful rules of thumb. One solution to these ambiguities of the nature and location of information is volume. These studies confirm that higher levels of exposure to information lead to a higher evaluation of the firm’s image. Among potential recruits, the higher evaluation translates to a greater likelihood of pursuing more information and possible employment with the firm. The studies further conclude that a firm need not tackle its general image to get better recruiting results; focusing on improving the volume of recruitment information can be a cost-effective step in improving recruitment results. In short, targeted efforts at image enhancement can be effective.

Another scholarly tradition has examined the idea that organizational image is a form of knowledge shared among members of the organization. This research is aimed at establishing how sharing affects organizational commitment and communication. At the heart of this study is the concept of the social construction of reality drawn from the study of the sociology of knowledge. The premise here is that social knowledge is based on facts agreed on through social and cultural practices. This field usually examines myths and practices as sources of socially constructed reality, but organizational image is an equally valid area of research.

Effect of Image on Commitment and Communication

Image is significant for two reasons. First, it influences how employees feel and act in relation to the organization. Management seeks to gain and hold the allegiance of employees for many reasons: greater efficiency, reduced strife, and heightened stability of the workforce. Central to all these activities is the organization’s desire to enhance its legitimacy. Legitimacy is an essential resource that represents the public’s approval of the company’s existence and actions. Legitimate firms face fewer regulatory hurdles, and if something should go wrong, the public will view the error as an aberration, not as a sign of corporate corruption. In some ways, legitimacy is a form of positioning, which in turn is a sort of rhetorical definition. Organizations position themselves through slogans and tag lines that seek to remind the public that the organization’s services are worthwhile and in the public interest. Profit motive, pollution, and corporate tax incentives are not themes featured in those slogans.

The second reason why the image is significant is that when it is widely shared by employees, there are benefits in the form of greater effectiveness for organizational maintenance and functioning. Every organization requires some degree of shared knowledge and some common sense of direction. In some ways, that sharing or overlap is what it means to organize.

Management cannot control all aspects of the image, but it can work to cultivate the impressions it wishes to convey to employees and the public. New members join with some understanding but acquire most of it through formal and informal socialization practices. When employees’ images of the organization are positive and overlapping, organizational commitment and communication trend positive as well.

Organizational image can be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively. Organizational images have been studied using participant observations, in-depth interviews, focus groups, surveys, Q methodology, and content analysis. There are no standardized questionnaires for assessing the contents of organizational images.

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See Also

Best Practices; Corporate Social Responsibility; Image Repair Theory; Issues Management; Legitimacy; Organizational Identity; Public Relations; Reputation, Dimensions of; Rumor and Gossip

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