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Image vs. Reputation: Which Reigns Supreme?

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Image or reputation? Advertising or public relations? Super Bowl ad or New York Times op-ed?

In our hyper-connected world, image appears to have trumped reputation. When a new product can become a trending topic on Twitter, or that day’s (or week’s) meme—sometimes before it’s even available for purchase—we’ve clearly entered an era where image matters.

For advertisers, this is surely a reassuring thought. After all, much of their work relies on consumers and the public feeling a deep connection to a certain image and making some type of purchase decision based on that connection. But for public relations professionals, the role of reputation for corporations, executives and brands is paramount, and quite often trumps image.

So whose viewpoint is more important? Put less bluntly, what are the vital differences between image and reputation that must be understood to fully grasp how each works together to help brands succeed?

A recent example, courtesy of The Economist, demonstrates how even those who should know better often confound the seemingly simple distinctions between image and reputation.

In an article derisively titled “Rise of the Image Men,” The Economist purports to analyze how and why the public relations industry is growing in light of continuing economic struggles. In the midst of working with my Public Relations Society of America colleagues on a series of rebuttals, I realized that what The Economist thought was public relations (reputation) was actually being reported and analyzed as a central role of advertising (image). In a way, therefore, the article’s contumelious viewpoint of public relations’ value made sense. After all, you can’t truly appreciate the value of something if you don’t understand what it is you are examining.

What The Economist and many others in the business community often fail to grasp is that public relations is not about image; it’s about reputation, trust and credibility. Advertising (and forgive me for pointing this out in an advertising publication) is about image—the visual, the look, the controlled viewpoint.

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