Communication can be perceived as a process occurring from the manipulation of agreed upon signs, symbols and sounds, etc. A typical goal of communication is to express or transmit some specific concept to another party, to achieve some goal of our own.
Communication (as a discipline) has several sub-fields, the most relevant to the big picture being “mass communication.” Even if one person is responsible for a policy of information dissemination, that individual’s thoughts are not their own; they are the product of various group decisions and organizational culture. In an traditional establishment where the status quo rules, people who reach a position of authority where they can easily affect a change are already conditioned against doing so. We call that groupthink, and people who reach the top are the most exposed to it.
Anyway, mass communication (as a practice) has three basic functions: public relations, advertising, and journalism. All of these are means by which one motivated party communicates some information with another party. Whether that information is narrowcasted or broadcasted to small or wide audience, there is one intention, which roughly sums up the purpose for what’s happening whenever someone does “journalism” or “marketing” or “public relations.”
Communicators are involved in Image construction when they engage in mediation or discourse with others. I don’t mean that they’re building an image of themselves in their audience’s perception. Rather, I mean they are building the audience’s perceptions so that it can properly receive the right images.
To explain, traditionally we imagine public relations as an industry which massages the existing image of a public entity. Damage control, bettering business to business relations, raising consumer profile through alternatives to advertising, public relations is commonly understood to improve upon the existing conception of the client so as to improve their standing (or destroy it, in the case of negative PR). But couldn’t PR also operate in a backwards manner? Say for instance, prospective clients already have a neutral image of a company. They don’t have any strong feelings about it because they don’t feel as though it’s services apply to them. Then, a PR firm works to clarify and communicate how that audience needs the services offered. Now, their perceptions can further be conditioned so that that company appears very appealing to them.
Marketing is all about image construction. What do you think of when you think about gas and gas stations? Dirty, expensive necessity, gross road food, etc? A great spot can evoke larger themes of freedom, excitement, and even patriotism and nationalism, which are associated with the gas station and prime the customer not only to buy the product, but like it too.
Journalism is probably the most elaborate form of image construction. Currently, a lot of information production falls under the umbrella of this craft which failed to create a professional identity for itself partially because of this idea. It’s plagued with VNRs and press kit materials, with profit-motivated managers and ideologues, all corrupted by their natural tendency to frame communication in a preferred light. But whether journalists decide to adhere to objectivity or transparency, they are ultimately pursuing a form of image construction – whether they are following someone else’s agenda, or encouraging the more democratic perspective of making up your own mind. While the more crude attempts at the latter fall squarely under the banner of “propaganda,” sophisticated attempts at promoting critical thinking are still attempts to shape the perspective of the audience (by allowing them to do it as they please, “freeform” image).
All of these attempts at image construction are merely manifestations of prevailing orders and patterns of belief and thought. As Hans M Enzensberger described it,
“The mind industry’s main business and concern is not to sell its product: it is to ‘sell’ the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man’s domination by man, no matter who runs the society, and by what means. Its main task is to expand and train our consciousness – in order to exploit it.” – Industrialization of the Mind, 1962
Enzensberger attributed these practices to advertising, but I believe they apply to all forms of mass communication, however with less ominous overtones as they represent diverging causes and motivations.
To reiterate once more, image construction is a part of the process. The motivations come from various goals on behalf of the party where mass communication originates. As such, image construction itself is not inherently “good” or “bad,” it’s merely a way to describe some media effects.