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Home arrow Accounting arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research
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Typology of Image Repair Strategies

Image repair strategies are organized into five broad categories, three of which have variants or subcategories: denial, evasion of responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification.

Denial

Any person who is forced to defend himself or herself against the suspicions or attacks of others has several options. The speaker may deny performing the wrongful act, as Ware and Linkugel (1973) suggest. Whether the accused denies that the offensive act actually occurred or denies that he or she performed it, either option, if accepted, should absolve the actor of culpability. One strategy for dealing with attacks, then, is simply to deny the undesirable action. Denial may be supplemented with explanations of apparently damaging facts or lack of supporting evidence.

However, when a person uses denial, others may wonder, “Well if you didn't do it, who did?” Burke (1970) discusses victimage, or shifting the blame. This strategy can be considered a variant of denial, because the accused cannot have committed the repugnant act if someone else actually did it. This strategy may well be more effective than simple denial, for two reasons. First, it provides a target for any ill will the audience may feel, and this ill feeling may be shifted away from the accused. Second, it answers the question that may make the audience hesitate to accept a simple denial: “Who did it?”

A popular defense strategy in criminal trials is the alibi. This is basically a witness who testifies that the accused was elsewhere at the time of the crime—and hence cannot have committed the crime. Of course, the effect of an alibi is to provide evidence that—if accepted— denies that the defendant committed the crime.

Evasion of Responsibility

Those who are unable to deny performing the act in question may be able to evade or reduce their apparent responsibility for it. Four variants of this strategy can be identified. Scott and Lyman's (1968) version of scapegoating—renamed provocation here to avoid confusion with shifting blame—suggests that the actor may claim that the act in question was performed in response to another wrongful act, which understandably provoked the offensive act in question. If the other person agrees that the actor was justifiably provoked, the provocateur may be held responsible instead of the actor.

A second strategy for evading responsibility is defeasibility (Scott & Lyman, 1968), pleading lack of information about or control over important factors in the situation. Rather than denying that the act occurred, the persuader attempts to suggest that lack of information, volition, or ability means that he or she should not be held fully responsible for the act. For example, when people are late to a meeting, we may not hold them completely responsible if unforeseeable traffic congestion caused their tardiness. This strategy, if effective, should reduce the perceived responsibility of the accused for the offensive act.

Third, the accused can make an excuse based on accidents (Scott & Lyman, 1968). We tend to hold others responsible only for factors they can reasonably be expected to control. Inadvertently missing (forgetting) a meeting is an example of an offensive act that occurred by accident. Here again, rather than deny that the offensive act occurred, the accused attempts to provide information that may reduce his or her apparent responsibility for the offensive act.

A fourth possibility is for the actor to suggest that performance of the action in question may be justified on the basis of intentions (discussed by Ware & Linkugel, 1973, as a part of denial). Here the wrongful act is not denied, yet the audience is asked not to hold the actor fully responsible, because it was done with good, rather than evil, intentions. People who do bad while trying to do good are usually not blamed as much as those who intend to do bad.

Reducing Offensiveness

A person accused of misbehavior may attempt to reduce the degree of ill feeling experienced by the audience. This approach to image repair has six variants: bolstering, minimization, differentiation, transcendence, attacking one's accuser, and compensation. Each one will be briefly explained here.

First, bolstering (Ware & Linkugel, 1973) may be used to mitigate the negative effects of the act on the actor by strengthening the audience's positive affect for the actor. Here those accused of wrongdoing might relate positive attributes they possess or positive actions they have performed in the past; the persuader attempts to add new beliefs (or remind the audience of forgotten beliefs) that are associated with positive values. Although the amount of guilt or negative affect from the accusation remains the same, increasing positive feeling toward the actor may help offset the negative feelings toward the act, yielding a relative improvement in the actor's reputation. Dewberry and Fox (2012) examined image repair from Governor Rick Perry after he fumbled during a Republican primary debate. They argued that he used self-deprecation, which should be considered a useful form of bolstering.

Second, it is possible to attempt to minimize the amount of negative affect associated with the offensive act. If the source can convince the audience that the negative act isn't as bad as it might first appear, the amount of ill feeling associated with that act is reduced. To the extent this strategy is successful, the person's reputation is repaired. Sykes and Matza (1957), Scott and Lyman (1968), Schonbach (1980), Schlenker (1980), Tedeschi and Reiss (1981), and Semin and Manstead (1983) all discuss denial or minimization of injury and/or victimhood as accounting strategies.

A third possible strategy for minimizing the offensiveness of an action is to engage in differentiation (Ware & Linkugel, 1973). Here the actor attempts to distinguish the act performed from other similar but less desirable actions. In comparison, the act may appear less offensive. This may have the effect of lessening the audience's negative feelings toward the act and the actor. Joanna Fan and her husband, Ziming Shen, were accused of taking “approximately $1.8 million of program funds in 2008 and 2009. She acknowledged in a written statement to the Agriculture Department that she had taken the money, but stated that she had 'borrowed' it” (Otterman, 2011, p. A15). Borrowing without asking sounds better than stealing (assuming the audience believes this defense).

Fourth, the actor can employ transcendence (Ware & Linkugel, 1973). This strategy for image repair functions by placing the act in a different context. Ware and Linkugel specifically discuss placing the action in a broader context, but it can also be useful to simply suggest a different frame of reference. For example, Robin Hood might suggest that his actions were meant to help the poor and downtrodden. Similarly, a person accused of wrongdoing might direct our attention to other, allegedly higher values, to justify the behavior in question (Scott & Lyman, 1968). For example, a police officer could attempt to justify illegally planting evidence on a defendant as the only way to protect society from a dangerous but clever criminal. This positive context may lessen the perceived offensiveness of the act and help improve the actor's reputation.

Fifth, at times those accused of wrongdoing attack their accusers, as suggested by Rosenfield (1968) and Scott and Lyman (1968). If the credibility of the source of accusations can be reduced, the damage to one's image from those accusations may be diminished. If the accuser is also the victim of the offensive act (rather than a third party), the apologist may create the impression that the victim deserved what befell him or her, lessening the perceived unpleasantness of the act in question (Semin & Manstead, 1983), again improving the actor's reputation. It is also possible that attacking one's accuser may divert the audience's attention away from the original accusation, reducing damage to the actor's image.

Compensation is a final potential strategy for reducing the offensiveness of an action (Schonbach, 1980). Here the person offers to remunerate the victim to help offset the negative feeling arising from the wrongful act. This redress may take the form of valued goods or services as well as monetary reimbursement. I was on a Southwest Airlines flight that experienced a delayed departure; Southwest sent me a coupon to help repair its image (it worked for me; Southwest Airlines, personal communication, 2011). In effect, compensation functions as a bribe. If the accuser accepts the proffered inducement, and if it has sufficient value, the negative affect from the undesirable act may be outweighed, repairing reputation.

None of these six strategies of decreasing offensiveness denies that the actor committed the objectionable act or attempts to diminish the actor's responsibility for that act. All attempt to reduce the unfavorable feelings toward the actor by increasing the audience's esteem for the actor or by decreasing their negative feelings about the act.

Corrective Action

In this strategy for image repair, the accused vows to fix the problem. This approach can take the form of restoring the situation to the state of affairs before the objectionable act and/or a promise to “mend one's ways” and make changes to prevent the recurrence of the undesirable act. If the problem is one that could recur, the actor's position may be enhanced by provision of assurances that changes will prevent it from happening again. Goffman (1971) mentions this possibility as a component of an apology. However, one can take corrective action without admitting guilt, as Tylenol appropriately did in introducing tamper-resistant bottles after their customers were poisoned (Benoit & Lindsey, 1987). The difference between this strategy and compensation is that corrective action addresses the actual source of injury (offering to rectify past damage and/or prevent its recurrence), whereas compensation consists of a gift designed to counterbalance, rather than correct, the injury.

Mortification

As Burke (1970, 1973) recognizes, the accused may admit the wrongful act and ask for forgiveness, engaging in mortification. If we believe the apology is sincere, we may choose to pardon the wrongful act. Schonbach (1980) also discusses concessions, in which one may admit guilt and express regret. It may be wise to couple this strategy with plans to correct (or prevent recurrence of) the problem, but these strategies can occur independently.

Mortification is a particularly complex image repair strategy. No universally agreed conception of “apology” stipulates exactly what an apology must include. It can include an explicit acceptance of blame, expression of regret or remorse, or a request for forgiveness. However, the phrase “I'm sorry” (at least in English) is ambiguous. It can reflect an admission of guilt, as in “I'm sorry I hurt you,” or it can be an expression of sympathy, as in “I'm sorry you have been hurt” (implicitly by someone else). A persuader who admits blame risks further damage to his or her reputation by admitting wrongdoing. Hopefully the audience will forgive, but forgiveness is not certain. Because of the inherent risk of accepting blame, some persuaders exploit the ambiguity in language. They hope that “I'm sorry” will “get them off the hook” without actually admitting guilt. Furthermore, persuaders who admit guilt can be vague about exactly what they are confessing. General David Petraeus resigned as director of the CIA after revelations that he had an affair with biographer Paula Broadwell. In a speech at the University of South Carolina, Petraeus (USA Today, 2013) said, “Please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret—and apologize for—the circumstances that led me to resign from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends and supporters.” This vagueness (“the circumstances”) could occur because it is embarrassing to rehash details of the offensive act and/or because persuaders try to avoid specific admissions.

Thus the actor who desires to repair an image through discourse has five basic options: denial, evasion of responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification. Several of these basic strategies have variants. These strategies for repairing sullied reputations are summarized in Table 2.1. Having articulated the assumptions supporting this theory and described the strategic options available for image repair, this chapter now considers three other questions: how the strategies work, the relationship of persuasive attack and defense, and the relationship of this theory to previous work.

Viewing the image repair event in terms of the elements of attacks—beliefs/blame and offensiveness/values—explains how image repair strategies work. A defense can attempt to deny that an undesirable act occurred or that the accused was the one who performed it, trying to change the audience's beliefs about whether the accused is to blame.

Another defensive possibility is to attempt to evade or reduce responsibility for the undesirable act. In such cases, one may not be able to completely deny responsibility but may attempt to reduce perceived responsibility for the act by adding new beliefs. One may claim to have been provoked and thus not solely responsible. A person may offer a defense of defeasibility, stating that the action was due to lack of information or ability, and hence not entirely one's own fault. A third possibility is to declare that the action occurred accidentally. One may also claim that the act was performed with good intentions. Each of these strategies seeks to reduce the accused's perceived responsibility for the reprehensible act and hence mitigate the damage to reputation from that act. Successful use of strategies to evade responsibility should improve the image of the accused but may not restore it completely.

Table 2.1. Image Repair Strategies

General strategy Tactic Example
Denial Simple denial

Shift blame
I did not embezzle money.

Steve took your wallet, not me.
Evade responsibility Provocation

Defeasibility

Accident

Good intentions
I insulted you but only after you criticized me.

I was late because traffic delayed me.

Our collision was an accident.

I didn’t tell you because I hoped to fi x the problem first
Reduce offensiveness Bolstering

Minimization

Differentiation

Transcendence

Attack accuser

Compensation
Think of all the times I helped you.

I broke your vase, but it was not an expensive one.

I borrowed your laptop without asking; I didn’t steal it.

Searching travelers at the airport is an inconvenience, but it protects against terrorism.

Joe says I embezzled money, but he is a chronic liar.

Because the waiter spilled a drink on your clothes, we’ll give you desert for free.
Corrective action Because the waiter spilled a drink on your suit, we’ll have it dry cleaned.
Mortifi cation I’m so sorry I offended you. I regret hurting your feelings and I apologize.

These image repair strategies attempt to alter the audience's existing beliefs or to create new beliefs in the audience.

It is also possible to reduce the perceived offensiveness of the act through several strategies. Bolstering attempts to improve the accused's reputation in hopes of offsetting or making up for the damage to the image from the undesirable act (this strategy uses beliefs and values about good things the accused has done). Minimization reduces the magnitude of the negative feelings attributed to the act, in hopes of lessening the ill feelings directed to the accused. It works by changing beliefs about the magnitude of the offensive act. Differentiation and transcendence, in their different ways, attempt to reduce the negative affect associated with the act. Both strategies address the audience's values. Attacking the accuser attempts to create new beliefs about the accuser to undermine the attack. Compensation is a strategy designed to reduce the perceived severity of the injury. This strategy relies on beliefs and values (“I am giving the victim [belief] something nice [value] to compensate them for my offensive act”). Hence, these strategies all function to reduce the offensiveness of the event. Because the threat to the accused's image should be a function of the offensiveness of the act, successful use of these strategies should help to repair reputation.

We often think better of people who clean up messes they created, promising corrective action. The persuader tries to create new beliefs about the accused's plans to remedy the problem. Persuaders who engage in mortification (an apparently sincere apology, expression of regret, or request for forgiveness; see Battistella, 2014). does so by creating beliefs in the audience. For example, I can try to persuade you that I feel remorse, that I accept blame for the offensive act, or that I hope to receive your forgiveness (see Table 2.2).

 
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