One’s image is a very important factor. For example, the oil industry came under fire in 2006 as profits rose along with gasoline prices. Actor and director Mel Gibson was roundly criticized for making anti-Semitic comments while intoxicated. Athletes such as track star Justin Gatlin and cyclist Floyd Landis came under fire for alleged use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. First, the nature of our image influences our self-esteem; if we believe we have created an undesirable image, that can be an embarrassing and unpleasant experience for us. Second, our image can influence our relations with others. Our reputation influences our persuasiveness; people are less likely to be persuaded by those whom they believe to have undesirable images. For us to be persuasive, our audience must believe that we are knowledgeable about our topic (expertise) and they must have faith that we will provide them with unbiased information (trustworthiness). Third, others may shun us and treat us badly when they form undesirable impressions of us. It is clear that a desirable image is important to create, maintain, and repair when tarnished.
It is not only people who need favorable images and suffer from image problems: groups and organizations, including businesses and countries, have images. Consider the reputations of Enron after the scandal, of the Catholic church following accusations of pedophile priests, of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, of the United States in some parts of the world after the invasion of Iraq (and no weapons of mass destruction were found), or of Iran and North Korea. Company officers, employees, stockholders as well as government officials and citizens can become disaffected by a poor image. Furthermore, companies have more difficulty persuading people to buy their goods and services when they suffer from undesirable images. Other companies may be less likely to sell supplies to companies with poor reputations (or may charge a premium to do so). Governmental regulators may create problems for companies with unfavorable images depending on the nature of the image problem. One country may have difficulty obtaining cooperation from other countries. Thus, creating and maintaining a positive image is an extremely important consideration, whether one is an individual, an organization, a company, or a country.
An image is a perception that others have of a person or organization (Benoit 2000; Moffitt 1994). That images are perceptions means that they are not objective and may not accurately reflect reality; although, of course, what “reality” is and our understanding of whether that “reality” is good or bad are open to interpretation because reality is socially constructed (see Berger & Luckmann 1966). The “facts” of the matter can help repair a damaged image, but the audience may not necessarily accept the accused’s version of the truth. Some images are very strongly held, but that images are perceptions, not objective parts of reality, means that we can alter images through communication.
Furthermore, that images are perceptions means that different people often have different impressions of the same person or organization. A clear example occurred during the 2004 US presidential election as Republicans and Democrats had distinctly different impressions of President Bush: 91 percent of Republicans but only 17 percent of Democrats approved of the job Bush was doing (Benedetto & Keen 2004). In this case one person gave rise to highly conflicted images in different audiences. However, we need to know how images are formed to have a good chance of predictably altering them.
Images are developed from messages about, messages from, and actions by a person or organization. That is, our impressions of, say, the United Nations arise out of things said about the UN, things said by UN officials, and actions taken by the UN. Of course, an image can be shaped only by information we have. One reason images vary from person to person is that we do not all hear the same messages or see the same actions. Another reason for varied images is that people have different values. For example, voters who thought terrorism was more important than unemployment were more likely to have favorable images of President Bush, compared with voters who thought unemployment mattered more than terrorism. Understanding the nature of image is essential to creating, maintaining, and, when necessary, repairing an image.
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