Organizations, including corporations, often face conditions where they must explain, account for, and sometimes apologize for real or perceived wrongdoings. An apology is a message framed as a general expression of regret and remorse and may include an acceptance of responsibility and a request for forgiveness. B. L. Ware and Wil A. Linkugel introduced apologia as a distinct type of public address that is prevalent and occurs frequently in many contexts. Apologia is a Greek term for a formal speech of defense presented by individuals and organizations when their actions are seen as causing harm and violating social values, standards, and norms. Apologia is an active and intentional communication effort of defense in response to accusations of wrongdoing.
Corporate wrongdoings include ethical lapses, defective products, unsafe working conditions, employee abuse, discrimination, criminal acts, market manipulation, deception, fraud, toxic spills and environmental contamination, and a wide variety of other intentional and unintentional acts that cause harm and violate a society’s generally accepted norms and values. This entry provides a brief description of how and where corporate apologies are used, a brief history of the theory’s most comprehensive framework, and a description of the five strategies for apology.
Corporate apologies are offered by both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. They may be offered by designated spokespersons or by CEOs and can take many forms, such as speeches, press conferences, community meetings, private meetings, online videos, commercials, testimony, and press releases. Apologies are usually offered by the organization’s designated leader, but they may also be offered by a spokesperson or may be produced as a corporate message, such as in an issue advertisement. Corporate apologies are often a part of larger public relations campaigns involving a variety of message forms.
Corporate apologies are generally viewed within the larger genre of messages designed to restore or repair an image and may be broadly understood as reformative strategies or transformative strategies. Reformative strategies seek to maintain or regain a positive image without changing the perception that an action was wrong. When a corporation simply denies an allegation, for example, it disavows any role in the harm or wrongdoing. Transformative strategies are designed to change the larger meaning associated with the events that required an apology. The corporation may seek to explain away the perceived wrongdoing by differentiating it from other similar but more offensive acts.
While many frameworks for corporate apology have been offered, the most comprehensive theory of apology was developed and refined by William Benoit. Initially, Benoit called his theory image restoration; he later adopted the term image repair. Benoit recognized that even the most effective corporate apology might not result in the restoration of the corporate image. Restoration implies that the reputation has been fully restored to its original level. In many cases, the best many organizations can hope to achieve is to repair their reputation, instead of reaching the higher level of restoration. In 2014, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors (GM), offered an effective and sincere apology for the defective ignitions associated with 13 deaths. She appropriately acknowledged the company’s failures, expressed regret, instituted corrective actions, and pledged to compensate the customers. In accepting responsibility, the company recalled more than 25 million vehicles. Even with such an extensive recall and a public acceptance of responsibility, it is unlikely that GM will ever restore its pre-recall image. Moreover, simply restoring the company’s image may not even be sufficient. In this case, substantial changes in how the organization is managed may be needed to address the serious risk of future crises.
To engage in image repair, Benoit noted that organizations accused of some wrongdoing must address two basic questions: First, they must determine which accusations of wrongdoing threaten the corporate image, and second, they must determine who the most important publics for an apology are. Understanding the audience is central to image repair because the audience will ultimately accept and validate or reject and invalidate the authenticity of the corporate apology message.
The theory of image repair organizes various strategies for apology into a typology. These communication strategies can be used by individuals and organizations to project a more favorable image in the wake of a wrongdoing. Image repair is not intended to serve as a way for a corporation to avoid responsibility, confuse the public, or favorably “spin” an issue. Benoit very clearly argues that those who are truly at fault should admit their role in the wrongdoing immediately and take appropriate corrective action.
The theory of image repair for corporate apologies includes five broad strategies: (1) denial, (2) evading responsibility, (3) reducing offensiveness, (4) corrective action, and (5) mortification. Secondary strategies exist for denial, evading responsibility, and reducing the offensiveness of the event (see Table 1). These strategies interact to form a set of topoi or areas where corporate spokespersons can develop arguments to defend the corporate image and repair the image damage caused by accusations of wrongdoing.
Denial involves simply arguing that the accusation of wrongdoing has no merit and that perhaps the wrongdoing simply never happened. Denial may also involve shifting blame, where the corporation deflects responsibility to someone (or something) else, using an approach that is sometimes called scapegoating. Exxon Corporation, for example, sought to shift blame for the failed cleanup of the 1989 oil spill to the state of Alaska for its delay in approving the use of oil dispersants. Shifting blame has two possible advantages. First, it provides an alternative target for the anger and accusations of wrongdoing. Second, shifting blame answers the inescapable question “Well if you aren’t responsible, then who is?”
Evading responsibility means that the corporation accepts some limited connection to the wrongdoing while suggesting that the organization is not responsible for the harm caused. Benoit described four options for evading responsibility (see Table 1). The corporation can (1) simply claim a lack of responsibility because someone else’s actions caused the harm (provocation), (2) claim a lack of information (defeasibility), (3) argue that the wrong was not intentional (accident), or (4) say that the harm occurred even though the organization meant well (good intentions).
Table 1 Benoit’s Image Repair Strategies
Evading responsibility is a very common corporate apology strategy because corporations usually have divisions, departments, and hierarchies that segment responsibility, authority, and information. In addition, organizations may be constrained by laws, suppliers, markets, technology, and the environment. Following airline disasters, for example, it is not uncommon for the corporations involved to make extended arguments about the role of the weather, equipment failures, pilot and air traffic controller error, or failed maintenance oversight. In this way, responsibility for the crisis can be shifted and diffused.
Reducing the offensiveness of the wrongdoing is typically resorted to when corporations cannot deny or evade responsibility. Six strategies can be used to reduce offensiveness (see Table 1): (1) bolstering, (2) differentiation, (3) transcendence, (4) minimization, (5) attacking the accuser, and (6) compensation. Bolstering occurs when the organization seeks to enhance its image. Differentiation involves distinguishing the wrongdoing from other acts. Transcendence is designed to move the organization beyond the wrongdoing to a focus on the bigger picture. Corporate spokespersons minimize the wrongdoing when they portray it as much less offensive or harmful than it may initially appear. British Petroleum consistently claimed that less oil was spilled from the Deep Water Horizon well than others had suggested. Corporations often attack the accuser as a way to diminish the credibility of the accusations. After Sherron Watkins alerted the then CEO of Enron Corporation about accounting irregularities in the company in 2001, the company sought to discredit her as a disgruntled employee. In offering to compensate those harmed by the crisis, corporations seek to resolve the accusation by shifting the focus from the event and the harm it caused to helping those who were harmed.
Corrective actions occur when the corporation moves beyond merely compensating or reinterpreting what happened and takes tangible steps to restore the state of affairs that existed before the offensive act occurred, promising to ensure that the wrongdoing never occurs again. Corrective action requires a public commitment by the organization to repair the damage, discontinue the activity that caused the perceived harm, and institute reforms to ensure that similar harms do not occur again.
In the GM ignition case described earlier, the company commissioned an independent review of the company failures. Barra named a new vice president for safety and hired additional safety investigators so that safety issues can be raised to the highest level in the company. The company also created a program to recognize employees who report safety issues. Several employees associated with the wrongdoing were fired and others demoted. Barra also committed to changing the culture of the company so that this would never happen again.
Mortification differs from other image repair strategies in that it is the only approach that requires the accused to both admit their wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. Corporations accused of wrongdoing can, and often do, engage in corrective action without ever accepting responsibility or asking for forgiveness. In fact, many corporations settle legal cases by agreeing to pay the damages and fine without acknowledging any wrongdoing. To reach the level of mortification, the accused must acknowledge and accept their responsibility and genuinely seek the forgiveness of those harmed by the crisis. However, it is important to note that acceptance of responsibility is inherent in any request for forgiveness because one cannot be forgiven for something one did not do.
In April 2014, for example, Pope Francis offered an apology for the sexual abuse by some Catholic priests: “I feel called to take responsibility for all the evil some priests—large in number, but not in proportion to the total—have committed and to ask forgiveness for the damage they’ve done with the sexual abuse of children” (Wooden, 2014). In 2008, Maple Leaf Foods announced a recall of several products linked to a listeriosis outbreak that was associated with five deaths. In a video posted on YouTube, CEO Michael McCain (2011) expressed his deep personal sympathy for those affected:
Our product has been linked to illness and loss of life. To the Canadians who are ill and to those families who have lost loved ones, I offer my deepest sympathies…. Our best efforts (to keep customers safe) failed and we are deeply sorry.
Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward offered several apologies, including a television ad in which he said, “BP has taken full responsibility for cleaning up the spill in the Gulf…. To those who are affected and your families, I am deeply sorry” (CNN, 2010).
In practice, corporations and organizations may employ several of these strategies. In some cases, the strategies may vary by the audience, and it is not uncommon for organizations to first employ lower-level strategies, such as shifting the blame, and if those are not successful move to higher-level strategies, such as corrective action.
While Benoit’s theory is the most widely used approach to corporate apologies, other approaches have been developed, including Keith Hearit’s apology as crisis management, Timothy Coombs’s situated crisis communication theory, and Matthew Seeger, Timothy Sellnow, and Robert Ulmer’s discourse of renewal.
Corporate apologies are an essential part of image repair and restoration and reputation management. They do not, however, ensure that corporations will survive accusations of serious wrongdoing. Enron Corporation filed for bankruptcy following the failed effort to repair its image. In other cases, organizations struggle for decades under accusations of wrongdoing and inadequate apologies. Exxon Corporation’s image will likely always be associated with the Valdez oil spill. In addition, corporate apologies often come into conflict with legal strategies because in some cases they may be seen as increasing legal liability for real or perceived wrongdoing. Attorneys often advise organizations to avoid making direct apologies even when there is a clear case of wrongdoing.
Benoit, W. L. (1997). Image repair discourse and crisis communication. Public Relations Review, 23, 177–186.
Benoit, W. L. (2000). Another visit to the theory of image restoration strategies. Communication Quarterly, 48, 40–44.
Benoit, W. L. (2014). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies (2nd ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press.
CNN. (2010, June 3). BP apology campaign begins airing. Retrieved January 11, 2016, from http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/06/02/oil.spill.bp.apology/
Coombs, W. T. (2014). Ongoing crisis communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hearit, K. M. (2005). Crisis management by apology: Corporate response to allegations of wrongdoing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
McCain, M. (2011). Maple Leaf Foods apology [Video]. Retrieved January 11, 2016, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIsN5AkJ1AI
Seeger, M., & Ulmer, R. (2002). A post-crisis discourse of renewal: The cases of Malden Mills and Cole Hardwoods. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30(2), 126–142.
Sellnow, T. L., & Seeger, M. W. (2013). Theorizing crisis communication. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Ware, B. L., & Linkugel, W. A. (1973). They spoke in defense of themselves: On the generic criticism of apologia. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 59, 273–283.
Wooden, C. (2014, April 11). Pope apologizes for clerical sex abuse, promises tough sanctions. Catholic News Service. Retrieved January 11, 2016, from http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2014/pope-apologizes-for-clerical-sex-abuse-promises-tough-sanctions.cfm