Image vs. Reputation: Which Reigns Supreme?

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.

This confusion arises because politicians, the mainstream media and other interested yet sometimes uninformed audiences confuse the two as being synonymous. They view having a favorable brand image as tantamount to having a strong reputation, when there are clear distinctions that need to be made about how a company builds a positive brand image and how it develops and maintains a strong reputation.

Returning to the central question of whether image or reputation has more value in today’s media and consumer climate, I’d argue both.

Certainly, having a strong brand image is vital to quickly grabbing and maintaining a customer’s attention. That level of attention, however, can be fleeting. A strong reputation is often the antidote to what commonly ails brands trapped in a crowded marketplace, one where every brand is competing to have the flashiest ad, or spiffiest new app; a marketplace that becomes watered down over time.

Reputation is hard-earned and long-standing. It comes from years, not moments, of doing and saying the right thing. When successful, it’s the climax of actually putting customers first, ahead of revenues and brand recognition; of having a meaningful relationship and conversation with the customer. And that sticks with people, gets passed along in the best form of word of mouth possible and helps brands sustain success during the inevitable marketplace challenges.

Arguing which has greater influence—image or reputation—is likely a moot point. But what we should agree on is that in the digital age, where even a company with a terrific image can be reduced to rubble if it doesn’t properly manage its reputation, better understanding and a healthy respect for the value of each will help us meet our clients’ goals.