Organizational image is a useful concept for understanding the impressions individuals have of organizations or that organizations want to convey to individuals. The term refers to an image that encapsulates the likeness of an organization. Organizational images can have a strong influence on most aspects of members’ organizational experiences. From an individual perspective, organizational image helps to explain how people: (1) seek membership in organizations, (2) identify with organizations, (3) make sense of and compare organizations, (4) align their decisions and behavior with others serving the same organizational cause, and (5) understand themselves and their roles in organizations. From an organizational perspective, organizational image helps the dominant coalition to establish or position the organization, its goals, and its views in the minds of its employees, customers, or other stakeholders. For employees, organizational image helps envision what types of activities are appropriate; for external constituencies, the image helps place the organization into a category of similar organizations while simultaneously differentiating the organization from others.
The concept of organizational image is closely related to the term “corporate image,” used by management consultants and public relations practitioners. The concept was broadened to capture a wider range of uses. Most people immediately understand organizational image and acknowledge its influences on organizational life. Most scholars and practitioners recognize its value as a concept and as an organizational “intangible.” Yet there has been little systematic research on this concept within communication studies because of the term’s early association with marketing and manipulation.
Much of the popular press writing about image from management consultants and public relations practitioners coincided with scholarly writings on image in the first place. The earliest scholarly writings on organizational image came in the early 1960s from the economist Kenneth Boulding and the historian Daniel Boorstin; each had his own influences. Boulding (1956) offered “the image” as a device undergirding much of society. Boorstin (1961) used the term as a signification of the “graphical revolution,” whereby much of what the public knows becomes mediated through the graphical interfaces, such as advertising, the news media, or other third parties. While Boulding noted that his view shares much with George Herbert Mead’s symbolic interactionism, he assigned Barnard’s Functions of the executive (1968, 1st pub. 1938), Wiener’s Cybernetics (1948), and Shannon and Weaver’s The mathematical theory of communication (1998, 1st pub. 1949) as the sources for his formulations of the image concept. Boorstin attributed his source of inspiration to Walter Lippmann, who used “image” to describe the “pictures in our heads” of the world outside of our direct experience.
The first use of “organizational image” in communication studies was by Harris and Cronin (1979, 13), who used the term to mean the “construed beliefs and goals that define a collectivity.” According to Harris and Cronin, an organizational image is composed of three analytical levels: constructs used to define the organization, beliefs about the organization, and ideal goal states for the organization. Based on this “image,” organization members negotiate rules that define appropriate behavior within the context.
Dimensions Of Organizational Image
There is considerable debate about whether all organizations even have an image. Using such terminology usually suggests a question about the degree of familiarity stakeholders have with the organization or whether they have sufficient clarity to make an estimation of what the organization is about. Erving Goffman (1963) suggested that if an image is not clear or discernible, people will fill the blank screen with images of their own. Often, these images are not favorable, which suggests that organizations are better off creating their own images as a way of establishing desirable ones.
A second way that image is described is purely in terms of affect, sentiment, or status, such as when it is said that an organization has a positive or negative image. Organizational images are used as frames in which organizations attempt to attach themselves to a category of similar organizations, and then distinguish themselves from the pack with which they associate. In this sense, individuals are able to locate an organization within a particular category, while still being able to differentiate the organization from others sharing the same label. Particular types of categories include market positions, industries, or even organizational forms. In more cynical views, “organizational image” is used to connote a facade or a public face that contrasts with reality. According to Baudrillard (Merrin 2005), an image can function as (1) the reflection of a basic reality, (2) a mask or perversion of a basic reality, or (3) a mask for the absence of a basic reality, or (4) the image becomes its own reality.
Categories And Definitions Of Organizational Image
Many use the term “corporate reputation” as a substitute for organizational image because of the “negative image” the latter term often has. That is, the term can often pejoratively refer to the illusory or superficial nature of images that may or may not reflect reality. There are four general types of organizational images in the communication literature. They are projected images, perceived images, refracted images, and defining images. Each of these four general types overlaps with the others in different ways depending upon whether one is adopting the viewpoint of senders or receivers, organizational members or individuals outside the organization, or simply comparing the messages designed to represent the organization with those from individuals who have their own opinions, speaking as authorized agents, highly identified or disenchanted individuals, or self-appointed experts.
The projected image refers to the image emitted by the organization. This is the view that came from management consultants and public relations practitioners in the 1950s and 1960s, and the view associated with management and marketing orientations. From this view, the projected image is the corporate image embodied in visual icons, corporate logos, tag lines, and message points. It also refers to the desired image that the dominant coalition projects through mission and vision statements, credos, speeches, and expressions of organizational identity and core values. This image can also be used by founders or entrepreneurs to help create, constitute, and guide the organization before the organization has any sense of history or precedence upon which to rely.
The second major view of organizational image is the perceived image. Here, the emphasis is on a general impression or perceptions held by insiders or outsiders. This category includes the organization’s public image, perceived organizational identity (members’ answers to the question “Who are we?” as an organization), construed external image (what insiders think outsiders believe), and corporate reputation (what outsiders actually think about the organization). This view also includes what those outside the organization hear coming from the organization. This view, too, is sometimes referred to as corporate image, but from the perspective of the external members’ perceptions of the organization. This view of image is different from corporate reputation in the sense that external audiences are comparing what they see the organization doing with what the organization says.
Another general view that is emerging is the view of refracted images; that is, organizational images passed on by third parties such as the news media, advertising agencies, government regulators, analysts, and pundits through some form of medium. These groups will often take the images passed on by organizations and add their own interpretations, which may or may not match or align completely with what the organization projects or says itself, but become part of the symbolic environment. Refracted images gain an air of objectivity because they come from sources generally regarded as authoritative, they are publicly available, and they are widely distributed. The general public has access to these images and they interact or combine with what is seen coming from the organization itself.
The last view of organizational image comes from scholars who study organizations. This category of organizational image, defining images, simply refers to central images in organizations, such as root metaphors and archetypes. These images are used as heuristic devices to capture the general nature or definition of organizations or the worldviews that are at work within them. For example, Ruth Smith and Eric Eisenberg (1987) used root metaphors as organizational images to illuminate conflict in worldviews between management and labor at Disneyland. Gareth Morgan (1997) used images to help shed light on underlying organizational structures.
Measuring Organizational Images
Organizational images have been assessed and measured in a variety of ways, including participant observation, in-depth interviews, focus groups, surveys, Q methodology, and content analysis. There are no standardized questionnaires for assessing the contents of organizational images. Don Treadwell and Teresa Harrison (1994) studied organizational images using personal interviews, Q-sort, and questionnaires. Another large-scale example of the study of organizational images comes from Mary Mohan (1993).
Most Q methodology studies and surveys usually begin with in-depth interviews or focus groups to determine what images are applicable. The conditions of instruction for assessing organizational images have seen more systemization. Respondents are often asked to identify what their perceptions of the organizational image is, which images they find attractive or unattractive, which images they agree or disagree with, which images conform to their experiences with the organization, even their perceptions of what top management (or the organization) is attempting to convey. Content analysis has been used for examining organizational image in CEO speeches, vision and mission statements, annual reports, and published news reports. One concern with assessing organizational images through the use of respondents is their idiosyncratic nature. An individual’s personal image of the organization may not even exist prior to the person’s being asked to provide it.
Implications Of Organizational Image
There is considerable potential for organizational image as a construct within communication research. Communication scholars can combine these approaches in order to more fully illuminate conflict in communication policies and practices both within and across organizations. Using co-orientation theory from interpersonal communication research, researchers and organizational practitioners can use organizational image as a way of helping organizations understand the degree of accuracy, agreement, and perceived agreement between the different forms of organizational images described here.
For example, public relations practitioners can compare the images that the general public sees coming from the organization with the images the organization is trying to project, or the perceptions that organizational members have of their organization’s reputation with the reputation their organization actually has. Further still, the projected image of the organization can be compared with the reputation that the organization actually has with the general public or members of any one stakeholder group. Comparing these different perceptions and projects may enable organizations to identify areas of consensus and conflict that may suggest whether policy changes are needed or are sustainable.
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