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Home arrow Communication arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research
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Dealing With Threats to Image

Regularly monitor for threats to image (check the news; perhaps even do Internet searches about yourself or your organization periodically), and be aware when others appear hostile or unfriendly to you. It may be obvious when your image is at risk—for example, critical headlines, protests at a place of business, hostile messages— but you should not ignore an image threat because you were simply not paying attention.

Discover negative attitudes toward you; this information can motivate image repair. However, knowing that a person or organization has an unfavorable attitude is not enough information. For example, consider a person who dislikes Lance Armstrong. You must know which beliefs and values created this negative attitude. For example, some people have negative attitudes toward Armstrong because he cheated, because he lied about doping, or because he sued accusers to silence their true accusations. If a person has an unfavorable attitude toward Armstrong because he doped, a defense that said “He never lied about doping” would offer little help. It is even possible that a supporter may be unhappy with him because he did not win the 2006 Tour de France or refused to sign an autograph. Telling that person that Armstrong had not doped (denial) cannot be expected to help repair his image. So people and organizations must realize that an unfavorable attitude about them exists before there is any reason to contemplate image repair. Furthermore, one who wants to repair a damaged image must understand the nature of that unfavorable attitude: the beliefs and values that constitute it. Analysis of the audience's attitudes could help by identifying possible image repair strategies (e.g., opportunities for bolstering).

Next I sketch what a person or organization can do when accusations or suspicions of wrongdoing emerge. First, determine the nature of the attacks or suspicions. Identify the audience's attitudes: the beliefs and values that constitute the negative attitude toward the accused. If there are multiple accusations, decide which are most important for you to defend against. You may decide an accusation is not important enough to respond to; what you do not want to do is to inadvertently ignore an important accusation because you were not aware of all the negative attitudes toward you. Keep in mind that if you wish to persuade multiple audiences, then the beliefs, values, and attitudes that you must identify in order to develop a defense can vary by audience; as noted earlier, it is also possible that the members of a particular audience could have different beliefs, values, and attitudes. To do this audience analysis, you must identify the audience or audiences in play in the situation you face, focusing on the audience or audiences most important to you. If you want to persuade multiple audiences, you should prioritize audiences so that as you develop your image repair effort you try to persuade the most important audience first and then try to address other audiences to the extent possible.

In audience analysis, it is not necessary to identify every belief and each value held by the audience; some of their attitudes do not concern your reputation. Other things the audience has learned about you may not be currently salient to that audience. Remember from chapter 1 that Fishbein and Ajzen (2010) argue that typically only about five to nine belief/value pairs—ones salient at the moment— shape an attitude. If the image repair concerns a public scandal, it may be possible to get a good start on identifying what the audience believes about you and the accusations against you by looking at the headlines of newspapers, news programs, or webpages used by your target audience. I would not recommend a superficial audience analysis, but the task of identifying the audience's most important attitudes, beliefs, and values is not as daunting as it might first appear.

Second, if your audience analysis reveals that you face multiple accusations, you should decide whether some criticisms are less important and can be ignored with little risk. If you feel the need to respond to every accusation, prioritize them so the defense you develop is most likely to deal with the most important accusation and to deal with other accusations to the extent that is possible. You should focus your attention and your message(s) on the most important accusation or accusations.

Third, consider whether you have other important goals in this situation in addition to repairing your image. As with audiences and accusations, you should prioritize your goals so that your messages are most likely to accomplish the most important goal. Image repair is a very important goal, but it may not be the most important end you seek in every situation; it could be more important, for example, to avoid providing evidence that could be used against you in court. In chapter 6, Secretary of State Clinton wanted to repair America's relationship with Pakistan (and avoid increased fees for supply trucks) as well as to repair the country's image. In Prime Minister Cameron's speech on “Bloody Sunday,” he wanted to offer a historic apology but avoid offending supporters of the U.K. military (chapter 7). Persuasion involving multiple goals tries to achieve the most important goal first and then attempts to achieve secondary goals to the extent possible. This book is about achieving one goal, image repair, but it is important to realize that real persuaders often have other goals that can be very important.

At this point, the accused is ready to start developing an image repair effort. Begin by deciding on an overall approach. For example, if you are innocent, denying the accusations is usually the best option. Of course, some people continue to think they are innocent even though their audience is convinced that guilt is clear; such persuaders will trumpet their innocence without regard to audience reactions and with no success. However, if you believe you are innocent of accusations you will probably want to use denial and/or shift the blame. In rare situations, an accused who is innocent might eschew denial if the audience is completely closed-minded and would never believe a denial. In such cases the persuader may need to move on to other possible strategies, such as minimization.

If, however, you realize you are guilty, I cannot recommend denial (as I argued before, lying is wrong and the consequences for you can be very bad if you lie and then the truth is revealed). A person who is guilty or a guilty organization should consider mortification and/or corrective action. Of course, persuaders must keep in mind other important goals (confession is risky, for example, when one faces criminal or civil legal action). One who is guilty but who does not want to confess that guilt can try other strategies, such as minimization or attacking accusers (and, again, I would not recommend making accusations about the attacker that you believe are false; that is wrong and, again, it could backfire if the truth comes out).

Once you have decided on a general defensive approach, reflect on what resources you have for your message. It is possible that simply declaring “I am innocent” (denial) would work, but supporting an image repair strategy with evidence and argument makes it more likely to succeed (remember in a criminal trial an alibi witness reinforces the defendant's denial). Chapter 3 (BP and the Gulf Oil Spill) and chapter 7 (Prime Minister Cameron on “Bloody Sunday”) illustrate the use of evidence in image repair. Do you have evidence, arguments, or other sources that can reinforce your persuasive messages? If you attempt minimization, for example, do you have believable statistics showing the problem is exaggerated? If you attack the accuser, do you have proof for your accusations? Are there other sources who can support your image repair? (Keep in mind that some alibi witnesses are not credible.) If you decide to use bolstering, for example, reflect on the qualities you have and desirable things you have done recently. Keep in mind that bolstering can appear self-serving if not downright boastful; evidence is helpful, and having someone else sing your praises might work even better than bolstering from you. Keep in mind the audience's values: For bolstering to work, the qualities or actions you tout must appear desirable to the audience. A corporate official who boasts about cutting costs by firing workers might appear in a favorable light to some (investors, perhaps) but not to others (workers, and especially workers who have been fired or laid off).

It is important to be sincere and to appear sincere in image repair efforts. A persuader's apparent sincerity (it is difficult for an audience to judge actual sincerity) tends to increase the source's credibility and effectiveness. For example, Senator David Vitter (chapter 4) appeared genuinely remorseful when he confessed to his transgression with his wife Wendy Vitter at his side.

Make sure the image repair strategies you select are not contradictory: “I didn't hit her, and she provoked me into slapping her anyway,” is unlikely to help. In President Nixon's speech on a U.S. military offensive in Cambodia, he attempted to use differentiation and transcendence. He displayed a map of Vietnam and Cambodia, with Viet Cong (VC) strongholds identified in red in both countries. He argued that attacks on VC in Cambodia were not an invasion of another country but simply more of the current policy (differentiating “invasion” from “continuation of current policies”). Nixon also used transcendence, arguing that this military offensive against the VC in Cambodia was an entirely new action, one that will win the war (the goal of winning the war justifies a new offensive). It was important to frame this as a new offensive because the war had not been ended by the policies followed for the past 5 years. These strategies may have been plausible singly, but they did not work well together:

In operationalizing the strategy of differentiation, Nixon characterizes his military offensive as a continuation of current policy of attacking enemy strongholds. This description clashes sharply with the one created by his attempt at transcendence, where we are told that this military offensive is something new and never attempted by us or our allies in the past five years. This does not sound as if this offensive simply continues existing policy. (Benoit, 1995a, p. 152)

Consistency in selection of image repair strategies is vital to successful image repair.

Persuaders are often reluctant to apologize; even when using mortification sometimes they cannot resist adding an excuse. For example, in chapter 5, analysis of Lance Armstrong's image repair shows that he employed mortification, saying he made mistakes, felt remorse, and was sorry for what he'd done. However, he could not leave his statement there: He had to make an excuse (defeasibility), protesting that he did not create the culture in which doping was necessary for winning. Such backpedalling tended to undermine his apology, because blaming the culture meant he was not accepting full responsibility for his offensive act. Make sure the strategies used in your defense are consistent; do not undermine your own image repair effort.

Think about what media are available to you: How can you make sure your image repair effort actually reaches the intended audience? If you have the resources, you can use multiple messages to make it more likely the intended audience sees or hears your message (recall in chapter 3 that BP used both newspaper and television advertisements). You may be able to address your intended audience face to face, but that is not always possible, especially for organizations or corporations. If you decide to address multiple audiences, you might want to tailor different messages for different audiences. However, it is risky to use inconsistent approaches in different messages, because someone might see both messages and accuse you of an inconsistent defense. It is also important to realize that using more image repair strategies is not necessarily better than using fewer ones. One strategy, if selected carefully and appropriate for the audience's beliefs and values, might be enough. For example, if you are innocent and deny the accusations, it would not help to try to minimize the problem. If fact, adding minimization to denial could make the audience suspicious: “Why would he or she work to try to show the offense is exaggerated if he or she didn't do it?” Similarly, “I didn't do it and she provoked me anyway” is not likely to hit a home run in image repair. On the other hand, some strategies work well together, such as mortification and corrective action. Analyze the audience (identifying the relevant beliefs and values), prioritize your goals (and your target audiences), think about your persuasive resources (e.g., evidence), and select the image repair strategy or strategies that are most likely to achieve your goals.

When the accused faces multiple accusations, the defensive effort need not use the same strategy as long as your message is clear. For example, when President Bill Clinton finally confessed to having had an inappropriate relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, he admitted one accusation and engaged in mortification (his relationship with Lewinsky), but he denied a different accusation (that he had suborned perjury or encouraged others to lie about it; Blaney & Benoit, 2001).

It is also possible to try to anticipate accusations and attempt to preempt them. Two examples are given in this book: a brief illustration of a sign in a Post Office that might help fend off complaints (chapter 2), and Cameron's third party image repair in chapter 7. It is risky to admit wrongdoing before accusations are made, but it might be worthwhile. Arpana and Roskos-Ewoldsen (2005) conducted a study of “stealing thunder,” or revealing potentially damaging information before critics or the news media can release it. The authors found that stealing thunder can enhance an organization's credibility. It is clear that one area where more research is needed is preemptive image repair, one variant of which is “stealing thunder.” We do not know enough about when and how to try to preempt accusations.

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