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Home arrow Communication arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research
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Chapter 2 Image Repair Theory

The basic image repair situation is simple: A person or organization accuses another of wrongdoing, and the accused produces a message that attempts to repair that image. However, this basic situation can become more complex in several ways. Sometimes the alleged victim is not the attacker. For example, Benoit and Harthcock (1999) analyzed newspaper advertisements from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which attacked the tobacco industry for addicting children to cigarettes and killing them. Children who smoke cigarettes were the victims, but it was the organization (Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids) that attacked the tobacco industry. The image repair situation can become more complex when multiple alleged offenders are involved. Blaney, Benoit, and Brazeal (2002) discuss how Ford and Firestone handled deaths from blowouts of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. Pfahl and Bates (2008) investigated image repair discourse from Formula One racing teams, Michelin (the tire manufacturer), the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (the governing body for world auto racing), Formula One Management, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At times, one person or organization defends another (called “third party image repair”; see chapter 7). Nelson (1984) investigated defenses of tennis star Billie Jean King from other tennis players. In 2013, Rutgers University men's basketball coach Mike Rice was fired for alleged shoving and berating his players; Assistant Coach Jimmy Martelli resigned the same day. Subsequently Athletic Director Tim Pernetti resigned for not firing Rice sooner. Eric Murdock, former director of player development, sued Rutgers, claiming that he was fired for whistle-blowing in this case. Rutgers University president Robert Barchi was criticized for not taking action against Rice more quickly. John Wolf, interim senior vice president and general counsel, also resigned (Hanna & Carter, 2013). Many people were embroiled in this scandal; this is reminiscent of the fallout after former Penn State University defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexual abuse of 10 boys: Penn State fired Coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier, and Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Shultz resigned (Chappell, 2012).

Sometimes image repair is prompted by suspicions rather than explicit accusations. It is also possible that image repair discourse can be used preemptively, attempting to forestall accusations. For example, the Post Office in Athens, Ohio, displays a sign informing customers, “On an average day, the Athens Post Office delivers over 49,920 pieces of mail to over 11,846 addresses.” This sign can be viewed as a defense against complaints about problems with mail services before those concerns are expressed (see also Prime Minister Cameron's apology in chapter 7). This chapter articulates the assumptions of image repair theory, describes the theory, and compares it with other approaches to image repair.

Assumptions of Image Repair Theory

Two key assumptions provide the foundation for this theory of image repair strategies. First, communication is best conceptualized as a goaldirected activity. Second, maintaining a positive reputation is one of the central goals of communication. Each of these assumptions will be discussed separately in this section.

Communication Is a Goal-Directed Activity

The first assumption made by this theory is that communication is a goal-directed activity. One of the earliest and clearest indications of this assumption can be found in Aristotle's Rhetoric, the term used then to describe persuasive messages. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle distinguished three genres of rhetoric based on the goal of the speaker:

Rhetoric has three distinct ends in view, one for each of its three kinds. The political orator aims at establishing the expediency or the harmfulness of a proposed course of action. Parties in a law-case aim at establishing the justice or injustice of some action. Those who praise or attack a man aim at proving him worthy of honour or the reverse (1954, 1358b21–28). Each of the three genres described by Aristotle is directly tied to the speaker's goal: Political rhetoric concerns whether a policy should be adopted; judicial rhetoric decides questions of justice or injustice; and epideictic rhetoric argues that a person is worthy of praise or blame.

More recently, Kenneth Burke, another important rhetorical theorist, declared that a rhetorical act “can be called an act in the full sense of the term only if it involves a purpose” (1968, p. 446). So for Burke, rhetoric is purposeful—either directly or indirectly purposive. With few exceptions, most rhetorical theorists consider rhetoric to be the art of persuasion, a declaration typically carrying with it the assumption that rhetorical discourse is purposeful (e.g., Arnold & Frandsen, 1984; Bitzer, 1968; or Scott, 1980). Thus much of the literature of rhetorical theory assumes that rhetoric is a goal-directed, purposeful, and intentional activity.

The assumption that communication is goal-directed can also be found in the literature on communication theory (e.g., Halliday, 1973). Clark and Clark, for example, declare that “speaking is fundamentally an instrumental act” (1977, p. 223); an instrument is a means to accomplish an end. Craig even declares that “a practical discipline of communication in which the concept of goal would not be central is difficult to imagine” (1986, p. 257). So the view of communication as goal-directed pervades writing in communication. It is appropriate to construe communication and rhetoric to be goal-driven activities.

Any assumption as broad as this one is likely to require qualification. First, communicators may have multiple goals that are not completely compatible. Messages that further one goal may well interfere with other goals. Still, people try to achieve the goals that seem most important to them at the time they act or to achieve the best mix of the goals that appears possible (considering the perceived costs of the behavior).

Second, at times a person's goals, motives, or purposes are vague, ill-formed, or unclear. Nevertheless, to the extent a person's goals are clear, he or she will try to behave in ways that help to accomplish them. Furthermore, even when a communicator has a clear conception of a particular goal, that does not necessarily mean that he or she is aware of (and/or is willing or able to use) the most effective means for achieving that goal. Nevertheless, to the extent a particular goal is salient to a communicator, he or she will pursue that goal by enacting the behavior that the communicator believes is likely to achieve that goal at tolerable costs. Third, I do not claim that people devote the same amount of attention to each and every communicative encounter, micromanaging all utterances and all characteristics of an utterance, constantly identifying goals and unceasingly planning behavior to accomplish them. Some behavior is automatic rather than controlled (e.g., Hample, 1992; or Kellermann, 1992). In situations that are particularly important to us, however, we are likely to plan aspects of our utterances carefully. In other situations, we devote as much cognitive effort to producing goal-directed discourse as seems reasonable and necessary to us.

Finally, even when an individual's goals are relatively clear, it may be difficult for others to identify that person's goals. Multiple goals (including “hidden agendas”) complicate matters. If one person's goals are unclear to that person, it should be difficult for others to identify them. Another problem arises because people sometimes attempt to deceive others about their true goals. Furthermore, certain artifacts (e.g., television shows, films, artwork) may not have readily identifiable persuasive purposes. Despite these reservations, communication generally is best understood as an intentional activity. Communicators attempt to devise utterances that they believe will best achieve the goals that are most salient to them when they communicate.

So communication should be thought of as an instrumental activity. Communicative acts are intended to attain goals desired by the communicators who perform them. These utterances are ones that the communicators believe will help accomplish (with reasonable cost) goals that are salient to the actor at the time they are made. Image repair messages are clearly purposeful, intended to deal with threats to the communicator's image.

Maintaining a Favorable Reputation Is a Key Goal of Communication

The second key assumption of image repair theory is that maintaining a favorable impression is an important goal in interaction. One useful typology of communication purposes is advanced by Clark and Delia (1979), who indicate that there are three

issues or objectives explicitly or implicitly present for overt or tacit negotiation in every communicative transaction:

(1) overtly instrumental objectives, in which a response is required from one's listener(s) related to a specific obstacle or problem defining the task of the communicative situation, interpersonal objectives, involving the establishment or maintenance of a relationship with the other(s), and

(2) identity objectives, in which there is management of the communicative situation to the end of presenting a desired self image for the speaker and maintaining a particular sense of self for the other(s). (p. 200)

Furthermore, Fisher (1970) distinguishes between four goals in communication about identity: “affirmation, concerned with giving birth to an image; reaffirmation, concerned with revitalizing an image; purification, concerned with correcting an image; and subversion, concerned with undermining an image” (p. 132). Persuasive attacks, which can prompt image repair, are what Fisher calls subversion, or messages intended to damage an image. Image repair discourse exemplifies Fisher's motive of purification, messages attempting to repair a damaged image.

As discussed in chapter 1, the need for discourse designed to repair our reputation arises because, as human beings, we inevitably engage in behavior that makes us vulnerable to attack. First, our world possesses limited resources: There is only so much money, time, office space, computer time, labor, and so forth. When the distribution of these scarce resources fails to satisfy a person's desires, dissatisfaction occurs. It is rarely possible to satisfy everyone, so complaints about limited resources naturally tend to recur. Second, events beyond our control can prevent us from meeting our obligations. Faulty alarm clocks can make us late, important mail may not reach us, or our computer can malfunction when a critical report is due. Third, people are human, and so we make mistakes—some honestly, others because of our self-interests. People accidentally lose things borrowed from others; they forget to attend meetings; they overcharge their clients. Alcohol, drugs, or even lack of sleep may cloud our judgment and impair our performance. Finally, and possibly most important, we often differ over goals. Conflict over goals or ends often creates dissension. These four elements—limited resources, external events, human error, and conflicting goals—combine to ensure that actual or perceived wrongdoing is a recurring feature of human behavior.

What are the consequences of inevitable offensive behavior? Semin and Manstead report that when “breaches of conduct” occur, “actors assume that they have projected a negative image of themselves, even if the breach is an unintentional one” (1983, p. 38). Human beings worry that others will think less of them when apparent misdeeds occur, and this threat to their image is thought to increase as their responsibility increases. These “negative imputations toward the self” arise from introspection. We may worry that others think badly of us, and that concern can prompt image repair. This is clearly related to Burke's notion that guilt or embarrassment prompts purification (Burke, 1984).

However, exacerbating this tendency to feel guilty ourselves, others are often quick to criticize us when this kind of misbehavior occurs. They may complain about what we said or did, about things we did not say or do, or even about the manner in which we did or said something. McLaughlin, Cody, and Rosenstein (1983) identified four types of reproaches, or utterances that provoke accounts or apologies: expressing surprise or disgust, suggesting that the person being reproached is morally or intellectually inferior, requesting an account, and rebuking another person. It seems clear that a variety of possible reproaches or complaints can assail reputation or “face.” The importance of persuasive attacks has been recognized by Ryan (1982), who argues for the importance of considering kategoria for a complete understanding of apologia. When others explicitly accuse us of misbehavior, there is no doubt that others think badly of us.

Thus our vulnerability to criticism leads to internal guilt and external threats to our face, both of which motivate a reaction from us. What happens when we believe that negatively perceived events threaten our reputation? Goffman explains, “When a face has been threatened, face-work must be done” (1967, p. 27). Notice also that Clark and Delia (1979) identify the identity objective as a key goal in communication, and Fisher (1970) suggests one of the basic motives of rhetoric is purification of an image. Why is face or image so important that persuasive attacks motivate defensive responses?

First, face or reputation is a crucial commodity, because it contributes to a healthy self-image. Snyder, Higgins, and Stucky explain, “Achieving and maintaining a positive self-image have been postulated as important motivational variables throughout the history of psychology” (1983, p. 29). This is true because problematic events (threats to face) have a variety of undesirable consequences, as Schlenker (1980) explains,

The more severe a predicament is, the greater the negative repercussions for an actor. The actor should experience greater internal distress such as anxiety and guilt, receive greater negative sanctions from audiences, and produce greater damage to his or her identity—thereby adversely affecting relationships with the audience. (p. 131)

Thus the literature concerning communication and interaction assumes that a person's face, image, reputation, or perceived character is extremely important.

A second reason image or reputation is important concerns its role in the influence process. For example, in the Antidosis, Isocrates (1976; another early rhetorical theorist like Aristotle) makes it clear that he considers the speaker's ethos, prior reputation or credibility, to be important to the effectiveness of discourse:

The man who wishes to persuade people will not be negligent as to the matter of character; no, on the contrary, he will apply himself above all to establish a most honourable name among his fellow-citizens; for who does not know that words carr y a greater conviction when spoken by men of good repute than when spoken by men who live under a cloud, and that the argument which is made by a man's life is of more weight than that which is furnished by words? (p. 278)

Similarly, Aristotle writes, “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others; this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely where exact certainty is impossible and opinions divided” (1954, 1356a6–8). Thus for classical rhetoricians Isocrates and Aristotle, ethos is extremely important in persuasion. Similarly, attitude change theory and research also support the importance of credibility in facilitating persuasiveness (e.g., Benoit & Strathman, 2004). Therefore one important goal of discourse is to establish and maintain a positive image or reputation. When others believe we have behaved badly, our credibility suffers.

Because one's face, image, or reputation is so important, Brown and Levinson (1978) observe that “people can be expected to defend their faces if threatened” (p. 66). Empirical evidence confirms the fact that perceived embarrassment is positively correlated with amount of face work (or image repair; Modigliani, 1971). Therefore, when our reputation is threatened, we feel compelled to offer explanations, defenses, justifications, rationalizations, apologies, or excuses for our behavior. Because blame and criticism or complaints occur throughout human society, and because face is important for virtually everyone, this phenomenon, a felt need to cleanse one's reputation through discourse, occurs in all our lives, public and private.

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