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

Image repair messages focus on one particular goal in discourse: repairing one's reputation. We must keep in mind that this is not the only goal, or necessarily the most important goal, for a specific person or organization in a given situation. For example, a corporation accused of manufacturing and selling a defective product confronts a threat to its image, but it could also face criminal charges and/ or civil lawsuits. Ethically, a person or an organization that is guilty ought to confess and apologize to try to repair its image. However, such an admission might help with one goal (repairing reputation) while interfering with other goals (avoiding criminal or civil action). Because our face, image, or reputation is so important to us, when we believe it is threatened, we are motivated to take action to alleviate this concern (hopefully without hindering other relevant goals). The way in which these image repair strategies function to repair one's damaged reputation can be understood through an analysis of the nature of attacks, reproaches, or complaints. Fundamentally, an attack on one's image, face, or reputation is comprised of two components (Pomerantz, 1978):

1. An act occurred that is undesirable.

2. You are responsible for that action.

Only if both of these conditions are believed to be true by the relevant audience is the accused's reputation at risk (and only if the accused perceives that the salient audience believes these two conditions are true is the actor likely to employ image repair discourse). Let us consider each of these elements separately. Notice that these key concepts correspond to Fishbein and Ajzen's (2010) concepts of values and beliefs.

First, for one's reputation to be threatened, a reprehensible act must have been committed. If nothing bad happened—or if the person believes that what happened is not considered to be offensive by the salient audience—then the persuader's face is not threatened. Notice the importance of perceptions here at two levels: The persuader must believe that the audience thinks an offensive act has occurred. Note that the perceptions of the persuader and the audience are important for different reasons. The persuader's perceptions matter because those perceptions motivate the persuader to engage in image repair and shape the nature of the image repair message. The perceptions of the audience are important because those perceptions influence whether the audience is persuaded by the image repair message. The persuader's and audience's perceptions may be similar; however, it is possible that the persuader misunderstands the audience's perceptions. Furthermore, audiences are comprised of individuals, and members of the audience can have different perceptions of the act in question.

For a persuader to be concerned about negative effects on their reputation, they must believe that a salient audience disapproves of the action. Of course, action must be construed broadly, to include words as well as deeds. Action also includes failure to perform expected actions as well as performance of dispreferred actions (in other words, acts of omission as well as commission). One can even be criticized for having performed an action poorly.

It seems reasonable to assume that the more serious the offense— the more vile the action, the more people harmed by it, the longer or more widespread the negative effects, and so forth—the greater the damage to the actor's reputation. In other words, offensiveness can be thought of as existing on a continuum: Actions vary in the degree of offensiveness attributed to them.

The second element of an accusation is that the accused must be held responsible for the occurrence of that reprehensible act by the relevant audience. No matter what happened or how terrible it was, it is not reasonable to form an unfavorable impression of a person who is not responsible for that act. Perceptions are vital here again: The key question at this point is not whether in fact the accused caused the damage but whether the relevant audience believes (perceives) the accused should be blamed for the reprehensible act. Innocence can help the defense, but perceived guilt is essential for an accusation to occur. Once again, the persuader's perception that the audience blames him or her for the action is necessary for image repair to appear necessary. The persuader's perceptions of the audience's thoughts about blame also influence the development of the image repair message. The audience's perceptions of blame (which could be similar to or different from what the source believes) influences reception or effectiveness of the image repair effort.

Responsibility for an act can take several forms. One may have performed an action, allowed others to perform an action, encouraged others to act, or facilitated an action. Just as the undesirability of the action exists on a continuum, blame may not be a simple true or false proposition. If several persons jointly committed the action, we might not necessarily hold them all fully responsible, but we may apportion the blame among them. Some (e.g., leaders, instigators, ones who played a particularly important role in the commission of the action) might be thought to be more responsible for the reprehensible action than others. Furthermore, we tend to hold people more accountable for the effects they intended and less responsible for unintended or unexpected effects. It seems reasonable to assume that a person's reputation will suffer in proportion to the extent to which they are personally or individually held responsible for the undesirable action (including the extent to which they are believed to have intended the action and its consequences).

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