In 2006 Kevin Corley, Philip Cochran and Thomas Comstock wrote ‘Image and the impact of public affairs management on internal stakeholders’. In this paper the authors examine both direct and indirect effects of images of corporate social performance on internal stakeholders. They suggest that public affairs managers must be particularly concerned about the ways in which images that are intended for and projected at external stakeholders are reflected back to internal stakeholders. This finding resulted in the projection-reflection model
The projection-reflection model
The projection-reflection model shows how the imaging of an organization has direct and indirect impact on the employees. External stakeholders reflect the image in the form of criticism back to middle management and staff. As a result, they react differently – often negative – to the intended image. The model makes the top management aware of the need to involve the expectations of employees and the outside world in the formulation of the desired image.
The projection-reflection model is applied in communication about corporate social responsibility. Affairs around unethical conduct of an undertaking can undermine the perception of the employees. For example, after an internal financial scandal, the management informs only the shareholders. Employees and customers read the next day all the newspapers, including the nasty comments. As a result media, employees and customers turn against the management.
The model begins with the projection, the images emitted by the top management to the employees. Those employees then assess the image on the basis of their own interpretation and that of their colleagues. Finally they draw their conclusion: accept or reject.
The projection on the external stakeholders would provide a comparable trade-off. If the external stakeholders reject the projected image, which turns out to be a negative signal sooner or later (usually through the media), the reflected image ends up with the staff. The staff will compare the reflection to the initial projection. Criticism by external stakeholders can turn initial support for the image provided by the management into disbelief.
Importance of credible images
Top managers invest heavily in convincing their employees and external stakeholders, but are often blindsided to the negative reflection effect. Signals from external stakeholders often have more influence on employees than signals from top management. It shows how important it is that the projected images are fair, credible and verifiable in order to keep the gap between projection and reality as small as possible.