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Home arrow Communication arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research
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Chapter 7 Third Party Image Repair

The literature on image repair generally investigates messages from those who are accused or suspected of wrongdoing (Benoit, 1995). Consistent with this emphasis, Ware and Linkugel's (1973) landmark essay is titled “They Spoke in Defense of Themselves” (p. 273; emphasis added). In most image repair situations, the accused attempts to repair his or her image with an audience. On some occasions, however, an image repair is offered on another's behalf by someone who did not actually commit the offensive act. Such image repair efforts from others can be considered “third party apologies” (the victim and the perpetrator can be considered the first two parties in an offensive event). Third party image repair efforts appear to be occurring more frequently (e.g., Nobles, 2008; Sugimoto & Sugimoto, 1999; Yamazaki, 2006). For example, Brooks (1999) observes that with apologies coming from all corners of the world—Britain's Queen Elizabeth apologizing to the Maori people; Australia to the stolen aboriginal children; the Canadian government to the Canadian Ukrainians; President Bill Clinton to many groups, including native Hawaiians and African American survivors of the Tuskegee, Alabama, syphilis experiment; South Africa's former president F. W. de Klerk to victims of Apartheid; and Polish, French, and Czech notables for human injustices perpetrated during World War II—we have clearly entered what can be called the “Age of Apology.” (p. 1)

Yamazaki (2006) discussed public apologies, image repair messages from governments. She explained,

Public apologies of national governments for historical misdeeds have become a familiar, if not commonplace, phenomenon of public life. The phenomenon may have begun in the aftermath of World War II as Germany repeatedly apologized for crimes associated with the Nazi regime and the Holocaust . . . More recent examples include the US apology in 1988 to Japanese Americans interned during World War II . . . and an apology in 1993 to Native Hawaiians for the role of US Marines in overthrowing the Hawaiian government in the 1890s . . . Internationally, Taiwan President Li Teng-hui apologized in 1995 for the Nationalistic Chinese government massacre of local Taiwanese in a 1947 revolt (Baum 1995). Queen Elizabeth signed a New Zealand statement of apology in 1995 for confiscation of Maori land. There is even a joint Czechoslovakia/Germany apology in 1996 as Czechoslovakia apologized for mistreatment of German inhabitants of the Sudetenland and Germany apologized for having taken the Sudetenland in World War II in the same document (Caryl, 1996). (p. 1)

Nobles's (2008) appendix lists 52 apologies from governments and government leaders, 12 from religious groups, and 8 from other organizations. Clearly, third party image repair merits scholarly attention.

It seems likely that there are differences between image repair by the alleged perpetrator of wrongdoing and image repair from third parties. Presumably, an apology would be more effective coming from the actual wrongdoer than from someone else. On the other hand, it is possible that a third party might have more credibility than the alleged wrongdoer, and third parties could have options that the offender cannot or should not employ. Harkins and Petty (1981) demonstrate that multiple sources advocating the same viewpoint can be more persuasive than single sources; the confluence of several sources working together to restore a damaged image could be more persuasive than a defense from the accused alone. Second, it is possible that a third party can lend a degree of objectivity to the image repair effort. Of course, this depends on the identity of the third party; some sources can appear less biased than others. When the third party is the victim (e.g., Wendy Vitter defending her husband David Vitter after it was revealed that he patronized the “D.C. Madam,” mentioned in chapter 4), that should improve credibility. It is also possible that a third party can offer particular defenses that the accused cannot, or should not, make. Benoit and Kennedy (1999) discuss one aspect of credibility: reluctant testimony. A prosecutor arguing for lenient sentences can be more persuasive than a criminal giving the same message; on the other hand, a criminal advocating harsh sentences should be more persuasive than a prosecutor. Furthermore, a third party may be better able to make some arguments than the alleged offender. For example, an athlete probably should not blame teammates for a poor performance, but a third party could make that argument (Wen, Yu, & Benoit, 2009). For these reasons, third party image repair deserves our attention.

Third party image repair can occur in very two different circumstances: Third party image repair can occur historically—attempting to repair an image from past offenses—or contemporaneously— attempting to repair an image from relatively recent offenses. An example of contemporary third party image repair occurred after sexually explicit pictures of a Canadian judge were posted on the Internet with solicitation for group sex. Her husband claimed that she had no knowledge that these photos had been posted on the Internet (Lambert, 2012). This chapter will discuss both of these third party image repair situations.

Historic Third Party Image Repair

A considerable amount of research has investigated historic third party image repair (e.g., Dodds, 2003). Much of this work relates to the Japan's use of “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery (e.g., Izumi, 2011; Sugimoto & Sugimoto, 1999; Yamazaki, 2006). This research focuses on instances in which a government official apologizes for actions of his or her government in the past (before he or she was in office; before he or she was responsible). Harter, Stephens, and Japp (2000) and Carmack, Bates, and Harter (2008) examined President Bill Clinton's apology for the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Edwards (2010) examined Japanese prime minister Murayama's apology for wartime crimes.

Contemporary Third Party Image Repair

Research on contemporary third party image repair is relatively rare. Nelson (1984) offered the earliest example of this phenomenon, although he did not conceptualize his study as such. Billie Jean King was a tennis star in the 1980s. She engaged in a love affair with her (female) secretary, Marilyn Barnett. King's image was threatened in two ways: She had been unfaithful to her husband, and she had engaged in a lesbian affair. In the 1980s sexual mores were more conservative than today. The theory of image repair discourse had not yet been articulated when this article was written; Nelson used Ware and Linkugel's theory of apologia (1973; my discussion of this discourse will use concepts that Nelson did not use in this article). King's image repair discourse used mortification (saying the affair was a mistake), denial (claiming that she was a heterosexual and that one “slip” did not make her a lesbian), bolstering (stating that she was honest), and attacking her accuser (for being “unstable” and for blackmailing King). Third party defense was provided by King's “peers in the tennis world” who bolstered King by discussing “the tremendous good she had accomplished not only for women in tennis but in all walks of life” (p. 95). Other tennis stars also used transcendence, arguing that King's personal life should remain private. Nelson also argued that the news media contributed to King's defense in two ways: providing news coverage of King's defense, and making comments that were largely favorable to King (the latter is an instance of bolstering). Nelson explains that King's peers had “a good deal of prestige,” which could “help to shape and change attitudes” (p. 95). He also argued that “the apologist and cohorts need not employ the same apologetic factors as each other. As long as they do not contradict each other, varying strategies can work together to the defendant's advantage” (p. 100). So this study provides a clear illustration of how an accused's supporters can strengthen the image repair effort. Nelson also argues that the supporters' prestige is an asset and that the accused and supporters need not employ identical strategies.

More recently, Wen, Yu, and Benoit (2009) investigated another episode of third party image repair. Chien-ming Wang was a Taiwanese-born athlete who in 2009 pitched for the New York Yankees' major league baseball team. His native country was very proud of Wang, and the major newspapers in Taiwan defended his image after each loss. Analysis of newspaper articles and statements by Wang provided evidence for their assumption that image repair from an accused and from third parties can differ. The newspapers relied on evasion of responsibility and reduction of offensiveness; Wang used mortification and corrective action. Wen, Yu, and Benoit argued that “mortification and corrective action are more suitable strategies by the accused rather than the third party” (p. 186). “The media can hardly promise to improve Wang's performance on the mound,” and “it would probably not be effective for the media to apologize for Wang's losses” (pp. 186–187). On the other hand, one argument for reducing responsibility (defeasibility) used by the media was to blame losses on errors committed by Wang's teammates. Had Wang used this argument in his own defense that could have had unfortunate consequences for the pitcher. It could have also damaged his credibility, creating the impression that he was not a team player.

This chapter will offer two other examples of third party image repair. First, an instance of historic third party image repair from British prime minister David Cameron will be discussed. Then contemporary third party image repair of President George W. Bush by his wife Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be examined.

 
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