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Home arrow Communication arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research
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Chapter 8 Conclusion

Several points made thus far about image repair deserve particular emphasis. Threats to image are common and our reputation is very important to us; these factors combine to ensure that image repair messages will continue to be commonplace. Perceptions—those of the accused and the intended audience(s)—are essential in image repair. First, perceptions held by the accused about the audience's unfavorable attitudes give rise to image repair efforts, and the audience's attitudes, or beliefs and values, should be used by the accused to help design image repair messages. Just as market research investigates target audiences to help design effective sales messages, persuaders who wish to repair their images should analyze their target audiences and use that information to develop messages that are more likely to be persuasive for the audience. Second, perceptions held by the audience about the accused and the offensive act determine how the audience reacts to the image repair effort. As Fishbein and Ajzen (2010) explain, persuasion occurs when the audience's beliefs or values change (new ones added or existing ones altered). If the accused's audience analysis is successful, the audience's actual attitudes will be the same as the accused's perceptions of the audience's attitudes. When there is a disconnect between the audience's attitudes and the accused's perceptions of those attitudes, image repair attempts are more likely to go awry.

It is important to keep in mind that a person or organization accused of wrongdoing may want to persuade more than one audience; we must also realize that the individuals in one specific audience can have varied attitudes. These situations can make image repair more challenging, but it is a mistake to ignore these realities when they arise. The accused may need to prioritize audiences and develop image repair messages that are most likely to persuade the most important audience and less likely to repair image with other audiences. One might decide to avoid a strategy that could help with one audience but might alienate other audiences.

Attacks or suspicions have two elements: identification of an offensive act and attribution of blame for that act; these ideas correspond to Fishbein and Ajzen's concepts of beliefs and values (beliefs of blame; values of offensiveness). Image repair theory offers 14 potential responses to image threats: These image repair strategies respond to blame or offensiveness, apologize, or promise to correct the problem (see Table 2.1). The theory of reasoned action offers several possibilities for repairing a damaged image (strengthening favorable attitudes, weakening unfavorable attitudes, creating new favorable attitudes; see Table 2.2). This book offers several case studies of image repair taken from scandals and image repair reported in the media; this theory and these strategies can also be used in face-to-face interactions about alleged wrongdoing. It is also possible for attackers to attempt to prolong the situation by attacking again, after a defense (Stein's [2008] concept of antapologia). In fact, rival persuaders can exchange a series of messages attacking and defending (see the chapter on Coke versus Pepsi in Benoit, 1995a). Third party image repair, when another person or organization attempts to defend the accused, is also possible (see chapter 7).

In my opinion, an accused should not lie about the accusations. Of course, sometimes the truth is not obvious, and I agree that “social reality” is constructed through exchange of persuasive messages; what I mean here is the accused should not say things that he or she believes are untrue. First, it is simply wrong to lie; I cannot recommend use of unethical messages. Second, if the truth emerges and the original accusations are shown to be true, the accused now has an additional problem: having lied about it. Chapter 5 discusses a clear example of this situation: Lance Armstrong cheated in sports by doping and he consistently and forcefully lied about it for years. Eventually the truth came out and he was reviled not only for doping but for lying about it. He was also stripped of the cycling titles he won by cheating, banned from recognized competition for life, and sued to recover money that had been paid to him by sponsors. Similarly, the truth emerged about President Richard Nixon and Watergate; he was forced to resign his office (Benoit, 1982). I am realistic enough that I do not argue that guilty parties must confess, but they should use image repair strategies that do not require lies (whether the guilty ought to confess is a question beyond this book). Finally, keep in mind that maintaining a positive image is an important goal, but not the only goal that matters to people and organizations. Corporations, for example, often need to avoid providing ammunition that could be used against them in legal action.

This book has investigated image repair in a variety of contexts, such as politics, the corporate world, entertainment, and international affairs. Other research published elsewhere has investigated image repair in areas such as radio and cable talk shows (e.g., Bentley, 2012; Browning, 2011; Furgerson & Benoit, 2013), health care (Johnson, 2006), and religion (e.g., Blaney & Benoit, 1997; Miller, 2002). The fact that image repair occurs repeatedly and in such diverse contexts testifies to the importance of this area of theory and research.

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