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Home arrow Communication arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research
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The central theme of this book is that human beings engage in recurrent patterns of communicative behavior designed to repair, reduce, redress, or prevent damage to their image (reputation or face) from accusations or suspicions of wrongdoing. Accusations, attacks, and criticism are pervasive in society. Complaints are leveled at people in all walks of life—and all sorts of organizations—for all kinds of alleged misbehavior. We can be accused of doing something that is wrong, not doing something we should have, or even performing an action poorly. Accordingly, throughout life we are repeatedly faced with situations that impel us to explain or justify our behavior and offer excuses or apologies for those aspects of our behavior that offend and provoke reproach from those around us.

When faced with a threat to our image, we rarely ignore it, because our face, image, or reputation is a valuable commodity. We not only desire a healthy image of ourselves but want others to think favorably of us as well. Others are more likely to believe us, and deal favorably with us, if we have a favorable reputation. Similarly, both nonprofit and for-profit corporations, as well as governmental organizations, usually prefer to have others think well of them. Hence, the communicative activity of excuse making or image restoration deserves serious study not only because it pervades social life but also because it serves an important function in our lives, by helping to repair our precious reputations.

The first edition of this book was published in 1995 and developed the theory of image restoration discourse based on a review of the literature from rhetorical (frequently called apologia) and sociological (“accounts” and “excuses”) perspectives. In the time since, the literature on image repair, persuasive defense, or apologia has blossomed. That growth in research impels me to revise, update, and extend this analysis of image repair discourse. Originally, I called this theory “image restoration,” because restoring a damaged image is the goal of such discourse. However, since then I have decided that this title might inadvertently imply that one can or should expect to be able to completely restore an image, obliterating any stigma in the image. In fact, in some situations the best one can hope for is to partially restore or repair the image. A broken vase is not very useful. However, it may still hold water and flowers if it is glued back together (repaired). The cracks may show after applying the glue, so the vase is not completely restored to the condition it was before it was broken, but a repaired vase is much better than a heap of pottery shards. Accordingly, I have started to refer to the theory as “image repair,” hoping that this phrase avoids creating the impression that we can or should expect to complete restore all tarnished images. Persuasive messages can result in effects that range from partial to complete repair. A given image repair effort might be completely successful, fully dissipating all bad feelings, but I do not want the theory to imply that complete restoration is always possible or the only desirable outcome.

The application chapters in the first edition (Benoit, 1995a) each examined a single case study of image repair: Chapter 5 looked at trade publication ads from Coke and Pepsi; chapter 6 examined Exxon's defense of the Valdez oil spill; chapter 7 studied Union Carbide's image repair after a lethal gas leak in Bhopal, India; and chapter 8 investigated President Nixon's defense of America's incursion into Cambodia during the Vietnam War. As such, that edition looked more like an edited book (albeit one in which all the chapters were written by a single author and with a common method) than a more traditional book. In contrast, this edition provides case studies, but unlike the first edition, the chapters will not all be focused on a single case study each. As I explore the types and contexts for image repair, it will become clear that my placement of many case studies is arbitrary, because the topics I discuss often overlap. For example, chapter 7 on third party image repair (when one person or organization attempts to repair the image of another) contrasts defensive messages by George W. Bush, Laura Bush, and Condoleezza Rice; clearly they are engaged in political image repair in these discourses. Chapter 6 on international image repair includes both corporate and political case studies.

I want to note that I see this theory as a general theory of image repair. Of course, there are obvious and important differences between image repair undertaken by, say, actors, politicians, or corporations (for a discussion of some of these issues, see Benoit, 1997b). Nevertheless, I believe the options identified in this theory are at least theoretically available to anyone, or any group or organization, to repair a damaged image. Some persuaders may have more resources (e.g., corporations) and may have more to fear from litigation (again, corporations), and in international image repair, cultural difference can be important to consider, but the rhetorical options are the same in every case. I continue to resist the impulse to include silence as a strategy for image repair. Some people and organizations do ignore accusations, but I am interested in messages intended to repair a damaged reputation, not in messages never sent.

The book begins by discussing the need for image repair and the accusations that prompt this activity. I discuss my understanding of communication and persuasion as a theoretical backdrop for my discussion of image repair theory. Then five chapters follow that discuss image repair in diverse situations: corporate, political, sports/ entertainment, international, and third party image repair. Finally, I offer concluding thoughts and discuss implications.

I want to thank the many coauthors who generously shared their time, effort, and ideas as I explored image repair: Kate Anderson, Joe Blaney, LeAnn Brazeal, Susan Brinson, Anne Czerwinski, Shirley Drew, Kris Drumheller, Jessica Furgerson, Finn Frandsen, Paul Gullifor, Robert Hanczor, Jayne Henson, Diane Hirson, Winni Johansen, Kim Kennedy, Maria Len-Rios, Jim Lindsey, John McHale, Dawn Nill, Dan Panici, Bill Wells, John Wen, Jack Yu, Ernest Zhang, and Juyan Zhang. I also want to thank the two most important people in my life: my wife, Pamela Benoit, and my daughter, Jennifer Benoit-Bryan. They encourage and support me, and I've been fortunate enough to write with both of them.

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