Simulacra and Simulations
Simulacra and simulations share the same Latin root word, simulare, all of which refer to something taking on the appearance or form of something else. The two terms, however, have a technical meaning, as presented in the postmodernist work of Jean Baudrillard. At the heart of simulacra (the plural form of simulacrum) and simulations is the sign, which he sees as pervasive in all of human society. Baudrillard investigates the nature of the relationship between signs and reality—that signs are integral to larger systems of social meaning construction. This entry summarizes the concepts of simulacra and simulations and explains their ties to corporate reputation management, where image is key.
Phases of Image
Any use of signs or images (inclusive of language and symbols) is done in relation to the objects to which they refer and represent. To Baudrillard, signs and images are best when they are most closely associated with some reality, but society has created the means for mass image making that predominates and contradicts the good value of close image-reality correspondence. The reason for this ever-widening gulf between signs and reality is the technological advances in communication.
In Baudrillard’s view, the progress away from the close association between images and reality is explainable through four phases. First, an image or sign reflects a reality most directly. The image is the closest it can be to the object it represents without being the actual object itself. Second, an image or sign conceals/masks or distorts/perverts certain aspects of the object it represents. The sign presents less of the object but still the majority of its reality. Third, an image or sign stands in place of the object it references. The image is recognized as a model of the reality. Fourth, and finally, an image or sign becomes the reality and displaces the original. The sign bears no relation to the original object and is its own reality. Each of these phases is a simulacrum, and the ultimate outcome in the final of the four phases is a simulation. A simulation is a hyperreality because it has achieved an existence all of its own, and its traces back to the original are only historically identifiable with it.
Impact on Corporate Reputation
Organizations always wrestle with the reality of the things they face and the representation of these through the discourse they produce. Publics, stakeholders, and stakeseekers may argue that an organization has or has not represented a matter accurately, appropriately, or completely in its messages given in any medium. What is said/shown and what is not said/shown are equally important. In this way, claims about an organization’s transparency in its communication and, perhaps, the legitimacy of its operations can become targets of criticism, thereby affecting corporate image and reputation. Ethics, then, is instrumental to the communication process.
The more an organization’s messages lose correspondence with reality—in the hearts and minds of publics, stakeholders, and stakeseekers—the more likely an organization is promulgating simulacra, perhaps on the way to establishing a hyperreality. Strategically speaking, the more an organization can enact simulacra that uphold the first phase of Baudrillard’s system, the better. Criticisms of selective reporting of certain matters over others serve as evidence that some other evil simulacrum has been enacted. The reputation of an organization, then, would be harmed through discourse that conveys confusing, unreliable, misleading, and nontransparent information and images—especially over tightly controlled or manipulated media—which effectively would result in the organization being perceived as phony and highly suspect in myriad ways.
The ever-expanding proliferation and promise of communication technology poses an enormous responsibility for professional communicators to manage their organizations’ reputations ethically, skillfully, and pragmatically. The critical impulse to discern truth from falsity intensifies while also being stretched to its limits as people are bombarded by thousands of messages daily. Simulacra and simulations can serve as important guides for message design and the overall communication process when managing corporate reputations.
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